Month: October 2015

TOL: Looks Can Be Deceiving (And I Was)

I was not too sad about missing summer in Washington, DC. The average temperature is really hot and the average humidity is really high. This means that any time I am outside, I am really sweaty and really sticky. However, while inside most buildings, I have to wear a sweater because the air conditioning is blasting the temperature down to levels similar to those I experienced during my trip to the north of Argentina/Chile/Bolivia.

There were a few things I was disappointed to miss, fresh summer produce high among them. Seeing my Facebook feed filled with photos of peaches especially made me long for home. As it was winter in Buenos Aires, the most I could have posted were photos of red delicious apples, potatoes, or squash.

That's one giant peach

That’s one giant peach

So I was delighted when I unexpectedly stumbled upon a few boxes of peaches at my neighborhood grocery store a week after returning home. I was 75% delighted and 25% wary. It should have been the opposite. After all, this was October. months after peach season. Also, these peaches were James and The Giant Peach huge. Seriously. I paid over $2.00 for one that was almost twice the size of a tennis ball and as hard as a baseball.

I let it ripen next to the bananas for a few days. I kept checking it, wanting to make sure I did not miss that peak eating window when it is ripe and soft, but not overripe and mushy.

Apparently, I am way out of practice.  The minute I cut into the peach, I knew I had messed up the timing completely. The outer layer had softened, but the inner 2/3 of it was still as hard as a rock.

I tried to just eat the outer part, but it had no taste and a terrible texture. This peach’s only redeeming quality was that it had looked beautiful while sitting in my fruit bowl.

Note to self: this is why in many parts of the world vendors sell only produce that is in season.

Next summer, when I am hot, sticky, and dreaming of glaciers, I will alleviate the misery a little by eating many juicy, ripe, sweet peaches.

My Acceptance Speech

On Sunday, I was honored with a Heschel Vision Award by Jews United for Justice, a local advocacy group that I have been volunteering with since 2009. The award honors local leaders who fuse activism with deep moral commitments and help make our world a better place.

The email informing me that I had been selected as a recipient came out of the blue. I have attended the Heschel awards for a number of years and I never sat in the audience wondering, “When will it be my turn?” If anything, I thought, “These people have made such a large impact on the world. I hope one day I accomplish a fraction of that.”

My short acceptance speech was born out of this disbelief that I was award-worthy. I trace my reluctance to become involved with JUFJ because I did not think that I was qualified to be an activist. I know that I am not the only one who wonders if I have the right skills or experience to do something, and this doubt prevents many of us from participating in activities or with groups, which is really our own loss.

I try to take the lesson I have learned from my JUFJ experience and apply it to other parts of my life when I am hesitant to volunteer for something or to try something new. I hope you can too.


My former boss and me

My former boss and me

Heschel Vision Awards – Short Remarks

Sunday, October 25, 2015

I was horrified. It was 1996. I was sitting on the floor of my new office at my new job. It was about the second week, and I had spent the day going through the mountain of papers I had inherited. It was late afternoon and I was sitting on the floor because I had finally reached the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet. I pulled out a folder labeled “resumes.” It was thick, and full of—you guessed it—resumes. I started thumbing through them and then it hit me: these were resumes of people who had applied for the job that I now had. I slowed down, reading carefully. I read about people’s passion for our mission. About their years of relevant experience. I even found one from someone I knew.

My father could usually lend a sympathetic ear—and be reached in the middle of the work day—so I dialed him.

“Dad. I just found all these resumes of people who applied for my job. A lot of them are really qualified. Probably more so than me.”

“Well, I know what you should do. Call the hiring committee chair immediately and tell him that they made a mistake.”

That was the perfect response to my unspoken fear that I was not qualified enough for the job. He was saying that just because I was not confident that I would be successful did not mean that I should walk away from the opportunity or the challenges it presented. Sarcastic or not, this is a piece of advice I’ve returned to a few times.

I think many of us face times when we feel unqualified to do X or Y, or at least under-qualified when compared to others around us—whether these are actual people around us, or people we imagine are there.

This certainly was the case for me when it came to JUFJ. I attended a few Labor Seders and loved the experience. (By the way, you all should mark April 3 and 10 on your calendars now for the Baltimore Social Justice Seder and then the DC Labor Seder.)

At the Labor Seder, I was in a room full of people who also felt that our DC community could be better than it was. But I did not really understand what JUFJ did, how it did it, or what I could do to be involved.

Even when I started to understand what community organizing is, I felt unqualified to participate. What if someone questioned me about the issue at hand? What if someone questioned my credentials? I didn’t think I had any credentials. I did not feel like a social justice activist. I did not have experience in politics. And, I had not lived in DC very long so was not sure I had earned a “right” to speak out. So I stayed away until the next year’s Labor Seder.

Then, in the summer of 2009, a perfect opportunity showed up in the form an application for the first Jeremiah Fellowship cohort. I could take a class and get my credentials! So I did.

What I came to understand is that no one stands at the door, determining who is worthy of participating. There is no exam you have to take in order to be involved in trying to make our communities better.

What is needed is an interest and a willingness to do something. Sometimes, doing something means making a call to the mayor or a city council member and reading a script. Sometimes, doing something means signing a petition so we can get an issue or a candidate on the ballot. Sometimes, doing something means showing up at a public meeting, because the size of the group is as much of a statement as whatever the spokesperson is going to say.

These are things I can do. These are things we all can do. And I have learned firsthand that when my small participation is combined with the small participation of others, it makes a big impact on local issues.

I also knew I could trust JUFJ because it operates from the same values I hold. To me, they are Jewish values because I primarily learned them through my Jewish family, camp, and temple. And I know that they are values shared by many in the wider community as well. These values tell us that every person should be treated with dignity. These values tell us that our fate is inextricably bound to that of our neighbors and that this city will not truly thrive unless all of its communities are thriving.

Before I finish, I would like to thank my former boss for that lovely introduction. I would like to thank people who traveled to be here today with me and the other honorees. And I would like to thank all of you for taking the time to be part of today’s celebration of social justice.

In the end, being a caring member of the community is the only qualification I needed to participate. It is the only qualification you need to participate. So when I get an email asking me to call a city council member, sign a petition, or show up at a public meeting, I will call, sign or be there. And I hope you will join me because together, we can make a difference.

Thank you.

And The Award Goes To…

I have been home for two weeks now. In looking back on my time in South America, I have given awards to the best parts of my experience and mention a items I did not like so much.

Best trip in part one: State of Santander, Colombia, my last weekend in the country. I traveled with G & T, the couple in whose guest room I lived, and two delightful friends of theirs. We went whitewater rafting, which I’ve done a number of times and enjoy. Then we went hang gliding (parapente in Spanish), which I had never done and found close to terrifying, kind of like flying on a trapeze was. (Click here to see the hang gliding progression from the photo below to being airborne.)

I also ate ants, which now I never need to do again. The fermented corn drink, chicha, barely helped the ants go down more smoothly.

Getting ready to jump off the side of a mountain

Getting ready to jump off the side of a mountain

Eating ants and drinking fermented corn

Eating ants and drinking fermented corn








Best trip in part two (and of the whole seven months): there is no contest here: El Calafate. I was totally enchanted by the Perito Moreno Glacier. I also got very lucky with a beautiful, sunny, wind-free day.

Perito Moreno Glacier

Perito Moreno Glacier

On Perito Moreno Glacier

Always good to have a pick axe










Best item from the US: silicone ear plugs. Without these amazing items, there are many nights I would not have slept at all. In Buenos Aires my second floor (third floor in a US building) bedroom window overlooked a busy street and was very close the intersection where this street crossed a six-lane avenue. When an ambulance was trying to get through, the noise from its sirens combined with the horns of the cars stopped at the red light trying to clear the road was so loud that people in the US commented on it during phone calls. In Bogotá, I needed the ear plugs many weekend nights when one guy would have parties in his apartment across the alley until all hours of the morning. We heard he got fined for excessive noise, but apparently it was not large enough because the parties continued.

The long-sleeved shirt

The long-sleeved shirt

Best planned purchase: sun-blocking long-sleeved shirt for warm weather from the Patagonia store in Bogotá. I really hate being in the sun so purchased this shirt before my trip to The Galápagos. It got a lot of additional use.

Best unplanned purchase: thermal leggings and socks in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, where it was significantly colder than expected.

Best new (to me) song: El Perdón (Forgiveness) by Nicky Jam and Enrique Iglesias because it played constantly in Colombia, occasionally in Argentina, and always gets stuck in my head. Unexpectedly, I heard it blaring from a car in my neighborhood during my first week back in DC, which made me smile (and have it stuck in my head for the rest of the day).

Wedding cupcakes!

Wedding cupcakes!

Best unexpected experience: being a witness at the wedding of my new friends A & S at the British Consulate in Bogotá. Both are dual citizens (UK/Colombia and UK/Pakistan). Since they had the consulate ceremony for immigration reasons, there was no big celebration or cake. So I brought wedding cupcakes. I’m expecting an invitation to a full-on party in 2016.

Favorite website: Translations, examples, verb conjugations. I used it multiple times a day (note to others: the website is better than the app).

Runner up website #1: The website where I usually ended up when trying to understand a phrase in Spanish or the difference between words that all translate as “however.”

Runner up website #2: (Expresiones españolas para Erasmus en apuros (Spanish Expressions for Erasmus in Trouble) – a blog that explains Spanish sayings such as “pedirle peras al olmo” (literally: asking for pears from an elm tree; meaning: asking the impossible).

Chilean currency

Chilean currency

Prettiest currency: Chile. The colors are vibrant and it is printed on a paper-plastic mix, so the bills do not become torn and faded easily.

Favorite juice: guanabana. The taste is very hard to describe. It is sort of a combination of pineapple and strawberry or papaya, with sour notes and creaminess of banana underlying it all. The smell can be simultaneously sweet and musky. Just trust me and try it if you have the opportunity.

Tajin Fruit and Snack Seasoning

Tajin Fruit and Snack Seasoning

Favorite new spice: Tajin Fruit and Snack Seasoning mix. I discovered this in Colombia even though it is a Mexican product. Intended to be sprinkled on sweet fruit like mangoes and papayas, I tried it on popcorn in Colombia and then had some every day for a week. Now, I am scouring local stores to find some here (I tried another brand and it is not as good). BTW, I still have not tried it on fruit.

Least favorite Colombian food: arepas, which are the Colombian version of tortillas. Most of them have no taste whatsoever, except for those from Boyaca, which are made from a sweeter dough and stuffed with sweet cheese. When served hot, these are delicious. Otherwise, don’t bother giving me arepas of any kind. However, they may be difficult to avoid in DC because it seems that they emerged as the latest food trend while I was gone and can be tried at a dozen places.

Sandwiches de miga

Sandwiches de miga

Least favorite Argentine food: sandwich de miga jamon y queso (ham and cheese sandwich on white bread with the crusts cut off). Not only will Argentines will eat dulce de leche at every meal, they will eat a ham and cheese sandwich at every meal too. If made with more substantial bread, it can be toasted and served as a meal. When on dainty miga bread, it is a snack or one item on a buffet. Bakeries sell other types of sandwiches de miga, such as egg salad or tomato and cheese. At airports and on planes, there are no choices.  This led to the day when I ate a cheese sandwich for breakfast at my hotel, a toasted ham and cheese sandwich for lunch at the airport, and a ham and cheese miga as a snack on the airplane. And I do not even like ham.

Things I should have left at home: professional clothes. Although I was glad to have an appropriate dress to wear to the wedding ceremony, and wore everything I brought with me at least once, I really did not need at least 20% of my clothes.

Trying to have a photo taken of just me

It can be hard to have a photo taken of just me (in Ushuaia with Chile in the background)

Biggest annoyance: tourists who have no awareness of anyone around them and walk right into the middle of someone else’s photo, or stand next to the sign/view/statue long after they are done having their photo taken, ruining other people’s opportunity to take the memorable shot.

Thing I will miss the most: Spanish classes. I really enjoyed the process of learning something new.

When The Photos Are Better Than The Experience

Map of where I was

Map of where I was

In August, I took a trip to the area where Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia meet. Ever since then, I’ve been considering whether to write this post because it was not the greatest of trips. I started out sick with some kind of cold and flu, suffered stomach problems at the beginning and end, and was freezing cold during a significant part of the trip.

But that is a lot of complaining, so I did not write it.

I did, however, take beautiful photos. A lot of them. People liked the few I put on Facebook, so I have created some albums to share more of them with everyone, including readers who are not on FB. The links are at the bottom of this post or can be linked to from the photo albums main page. And here’s a video by one of the guys in my 4×4 in Bolivia. (I wasn’t with him for most of his trip, but the majority of the video is of Uyuni and I also visited the other places featured.)

This area is desert and its beauty is various shades of brown seen in the hills and mountains. The National Reserve in Bolivia had these and also lakes of different colors. The salt flats in Argentina and Bolivia were stark—their beauty lies in the textures of the salt and the mountains in the distance. But during these various outings, I was ready to move on after a short period of time. The vistas were similar and after a few minutes of appreciating them and snapping some photos, I was done.

The Brazilians taking a fun photo

The Brazilians taking a fun photo

Not so my traveling companions. According to two different tour guides, tourists from Brazil and Asia (especially China) have reputations as over-the-top photo takers—they take the longest amount of time at every stop, want to photograph every pose possible, and use the most selfie sticks. The two Brazilians in my 4×4 in Bolivia lived up to the first two stereotypes and kept us at some stops long after I was ready to depart. In hindsight, I appreciate the fun of some of these photos.

Parque Torres del Paine, Chile

A view that moved me more: Parque Torres del Paine, Chile

Now that I have visited different parts of Patagonia, I also have realized that I am just not as impacted by the desert as I am by snow-covered mountains. I look at my Patagonia photos and see how, to others, the vistas might all look the same. (I admit that my evaluation of the how great the Patagonia trip probably was positively impacted by being healthy and not as cold.) But I loved the winter landscape and did not want to get on the bus and drive away a few minutes after arriving. In fact, Patagonia is the first trip that I finished with thoughts about when and how I can return.

Photo albums:

Salta & Jujuy

San Pedro de Atacama

Eduardo Abaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve

Salar de Uyuni

Some Things I Am Looking Forward To

I started this post at the end of July and have been adding to it since then. As I reread it, I appreciate how incredibly fortunate I am to have creature comforts and conveniences waiting for me at home.

Beyond my friends and family, here are a few things I am very excited about reacquainting myself with when I arrive in the US.

Household paper products: Most toilet paper in South America feels like sandpaper. This is not great on normal days. During my six different bouts of stomach problems, it was torture. I cannot wait for some fluffy, cottony toilet paper. I suspect I will find whatever they have at the Atlanta airport (my first stop on the way home) to be luxorious.

TP aisle at Giant. Photo credit: Eileen Slovak

TP aisle at a Giant Supermarket. Photo credit: Eileen Slovak

Same goes for napkins. Many restaurants do not even pretend to have napkins. Of those that do, most offer squares of something that are smaller than standard cocktail napkins in the US and have a consistency similar to wax paper. And you know how absorbent wax paper is.

Easy access to cash and using my credit card: In Argentina, I suffered from a constant fear of running out of money.  For three months, I lived a cash-only life because of the significant difference between the official exchange rate and the blue rate. In Colombia, I could use my credit card at some places, and could get cash from an ATM at any time, on just about any block in the city. Here, I worry about being stuck somewhere unable to pay for my dinner or my cab home.

In general, I did not want to carry too much cash at one time in case I got mugged or pick-pocketed. In Bs As, I had to develop the habit of checking how much cash I had in my wallet before leaving each morning. The worst days were when I was carrying thousands of pesos because I had just changed money or was on my way to pay the travel agency. The largest bill here is 100 ARS, so those were thick wads of cash.

Fluffy towels and cleaner t-shirts and sweaters: In much of South America, people do not own clothes dryers because the machines and electricity are expensive and air drying works well (or, well enough—humid days slow the process, items like jeans and socks can take a very long time to dry, etc.). While I cannot argue with any of this, I do miss fluffy towels. Air-dried towels are crunchy.

Also, I have come to appreciate the role driers play in removing lint, animal hair, and other similar items from clothes. As an example, I have a green t-shirt that I often wear with a black cotton sweater. The t-shirt took on a lot of black fuzz from the sweater. Most of the fuzz has remained there for months. I know that driers contribute to pilling and clothes getting worn out, which is a drawback of using them. So, I am going to try to air dry more clothes once I am home (but not the towels).

Peanut butter: I really enjoy peanut butter. I usually eat it straight out of the jar, or in a chocolatey dessert. Most of the rest of the world does not like peanut butter and cannot understand why Americans have such an affinity for it.  For the past few weeks, I have had a deep craving for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Or for the amazing double chocolate-double peanut butter cookies that I bake using a recipe from the Tate’s Bake Shop cookbook.

Common Argentine meal

Common Argentine meal

Chocolate desserts without dulce de leche: Dulce de leche, a caramel-like mixture, is Argentina’s national food. People eat it at all four meals. I wish I was exaggerating. Ice cream shops have whole lists of their dulce de leche offerings. I enjoy it. But not so much that I want it every day. It is impossible to get a piece of chocolate cake, cup of chocolate mousse, or any non-brownie chocolate dessert without a layer of dulce de leche.

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