Happy Four and More

You know how you always twist the rings on my finger when you’re holding my hand?

I like that.

You know how you make me fried egg whites or oatmeal with fruit in the morning before you send me off on my day?

I like that.

You know how you let me steal all of your comfy sweaters?

I like that.

You know how you make those gross pig noises to get me to stop tickling you?

I secretly like that.

You know how you rub my feet without me even asking?

I like that too. A lot.

You know how you read to me so that I will fall asleep first?

I love that.

You know how we always go grocery shopping minutes before we make dinner?

I like that.

You know how we always make dinner together and talk and debate?

That’s my favorite.

Remember when I made you scream “CHARGE” at the Dodger game even though you thought it was goofy?

That was nice.

Remember when you swept me off my chair to slow dance with me to our favorite Jay Buchanan song?

That was really nice.

Remember when we laid in a field of poppies and loved life in Technicolor?

That was nice too.

Remember how you told me that “everyone has their day” when I was too scared to finish the climb at Point Dume?

You were so nice.

Remember when we saw Peeps at the grocery store and I squealed with joy?

Super nice.

Remember when we discovered dried figs?


Remember when we spent the day searching grocery stores for frozen bananas?

That was fun.

Remember when we bought the shiisha?

So fun.

Remember when I thought it would be funny to brush shaving cream all over my face?

So funny.

Remember when we had a feast out of a dumpster?

Funny and fun.

Remember when you took a chance on me that day at the gym.

That was it.

Happy Four and More.

Published in: on May 6, 2010 at 1:18 am  Leave a Comment  

Life Is Wonderful

Fellow blogger Kendra Osburn asked on her latest blog post, after listing all the wonderful things about her week:

What are YOUR week’s Wonderfuls!?

So, thanks for the prompt Kendra! Here are mine:

Cheese (or other fun food): _______________________

Gotta be FETA. This might be my Wonderful Wonder of Cheese every week, BUT I have good reason. It was deliciously scattered upon my Whole Foods spinach and quinoa salad among a spattering of sunflower seeds and jicama, and raisins. Yummy!

Ah! And how can I forget my deliciously prepared fried egg whites with feta cheese and a slice of avocado on top. Thanks BennyBoy!

The real beauty of feta cheese is that it’s so versatile! You can CRUMBLE it in a salad or on eggs or in hummus. Or you can have the full whole SLAB. If you’ve been to Greece, then you know what I’m talking about: real Greek salad cannot be found here in these silly States, with their beds of lettuce and crumbled feta cheese and thinly chopped onions. No, real greek salad has no lettuce, but rather huge chunks of tomatoes, onions, bell peppers, and cucumbers, with a thick square slab of feta sitting prettily atop the veggies, sprinkled with herbs and drizzled with olive oil.

Oh salad of my ancestors, how I miss thee.

Music: _______________________________________

This week I have obsessively listened to two new artists which we discovered only recently. Here’s a taste…

1) “Home” by Edward Sharp and the Magnetic Zeros

2). “Heart Skipped a Beat” by The XX

3) “Intro” by The XX**

**I was obsessed with this song because it played in an AT&T commercial during the Olympics, which I am also obsessed with, featuring Apolo Ohno, who I am also very obsessed with. We only just discovered the song’s artist.

Thing in your house that makes you smile whenever you see it (I changed this one, sorry Kendra I didn’t have any good discoveries this week!):________________________________

The frame my daddy helped me build when one Sunday afternoon I felt the overwhelming need to break out the power tools. It’s a beautiful 30×30 frame with a flower scan made for me by my wonderful boyfriend. (Boys, if you ever get in trouble with your girl, flowers will do the trick, but high resolution scanned images of flowers you picked yourself? Man that girl won’t know what hit her. I’m totally not kidding. I even built a frame for mine!)

After building the frame, I torched it just a tad to bring out the character of the wood (even wood’s got something to say!). We stained it a dark brown oak color, which goes perfectly with the image. And I love it!

Every time I walk by it, I smile.

I’d probably smile even more if I could remember to hang it.

Hang out spot: ________________________________

I have three.

1) Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve

I could literally lie here until poppies sprouted out of my ears. With a good book, a cold drink, good company (and sunscreen apparently), it doesn’t get much better.

2) Doheney Library – The Giant Chessboard

I was having a really bad day, and a good friend (I’ll miss you!) called me up, challenging me to a game of chess. Little did I know…

3) The Dumpster

A pretty underrated hang out spot, I must say.

The freegans do know how to have fun in a dumpster. This was my second dive. We didn’t get quite as much as the first time around, but it was still incredible to see how much food gets thrown away. It’s not just grocery stores, of course, but also restaurants, and even my own little refrigerator! It’s awful!

Despite the depressing reality of how wasteful we are, it is neat to see people get so excited about trash. It’s even neater to see people make friends, share their challenges and their joys over a bottle of thrown-away wine and day-old bread.

Also, I learned something about being a journalist. On the first dive, I refused to jump any fences, which was necessary to get to the dumpsters, even though I really needed the shots inside the dumpster for my story.

I just don’t like breaking the law. And I really usually don’t.

But if I wanted to get the story, really get the story, I had to buck up, and be bad. So I was. Maybe I acted wrongly, but I finished my story, I didn’t get arrested, and I didn’t hurt anyone or anything belonging to anyone. Even though I felt bad for breaking the law, I felt proud of myself that I did what I had to do to get the pictures I needed. And I think the message my pictures send is an important one, one worth jumping over a fence.

Dessert: __________________________________

Dried strawberries.

Whole Foods has pretty much cornered the market on this one. (What happened Trader Joes??!!) Hideously overpriced at $10.99, but 100% worth the trouble.

Volcano You Say? Let’s TED

TED, [ ted ], noun, TED; verb, to TED, TEDding; adjective, TED, TEDalicious


1. acronym for Technology, Entertainment, and Design

2. a non-profit foundation which features conferences comprised of lectures and performances by the world’s best and brightest thinkers and innovators in less than 18 minutes


3. To utilize creativity and innovation and enable the spread of ideas around the world : We were stuck in London, so we TEDded.

– adjective

4. To demonstrate the motivation and creativity necessary to change the world and share your greatest ideas with peers: You are so TED.

What do you do when a volcano spews a giant cloud of ash into the atmosphere, casting a big, black shadow over hearts and minds?

Do you try to find a portkey in your airline-issued sleeping bag that can zap you to your chosen destination? After all, it worked for Harry Potter.

Or do you inquire about the hopes and dreams of the sleeping baggers around you?

Do you sit in the airport, buzzing in the ear of customer service, trying to find any possible way out.

Or do you take advantage of your extra few days to explore a foreign land, or perhaps the place you call home.

Do you spike up the room rates of the hotel you own to take advantage trapped passengers, as in the case of Dubai hotels?

Or do you work together to make sure everyone has a just-right place to sit, a just-right place to sleep, and a just-right bowl of porridge?

Rather than wallowing in the ash-free corners of London while they waited for the chance to get home, organizers and attendees of the Skoll World Forum

{Skoll Center for Social Entrepreneurship: sponsors research, education and collaboration for the advancement in the field of social entrepreneurship.}

{Skoll Foundation: funds social entrepreneurs around the globe.}

{Social Entrepreneurship: innovative solutions to global environmental and humanitarian problems through the application of high-impact business models revenue strategies.}

decided to take advantage of some extra time with some incredible individuals.

So they created TEDxVolcano in 24 hours: found a great venue, great food, and even greater speakers.

These included:

Jeff Skoll         [ Chairman of the Skoll Foundation ]

Larry Brilliant       [ Former Director of Google.org ]

Nathaniel Whittenmore     [ Founder of Assetmap ]

Matthew Bishop     [ New York Bureau Chief for The Economist ]

Cara Mertes      [ Head of Documentaries for Sundance ]

Peter Greenber     [ CBS Correspondent ]

Susheela Raman       [ Musician ]

And the list goes on.

I’ve had so many conversations with people about how unfortunate this volcano situation has been. Apart from the airlines losing hundreds of millions of dollars and the stranded people with


to get back to, the Iceland V had a negative impact on so many others. Restaurants who didn’t have fresh food coming in. Food suppliers who had to throw away tons and tons of food that went bad after a week waiting to get on a plane. The lungs of those across Europe who are breathing in pieces of glass and tearing their lungs to pieces. Sports competitions that had to be pushed forward for months. Honeymooners who had to cancel their trips. And so on.

A whole lot of Negative Nancy. [Did anyone else have the thought bubble that the name for the volcano Eyjafjallajökull itself looks like it could be an excellent cuss word? Like if you found out you were stranded in the Heathrow airport, this is the spray of letters you would slam on the keyboard in an suppressed outburst of profanity?]

But what I like about TEDxVolcano is how they took a very negative situation, realized there was nothing they could do, so found a positive and skipped away. Instead of complaining to friends and family back home, working in their hotel rooms alone, or finding solace in sleep, the TEDx-goers said, “Not so much.”

Click here to watch TEDxVolcano.

Published in: on April 22, 2010 at 10:14 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Ode to A Soul Mate

This goes out to my soul mate, my roommate, my bestest friend.

Let me tell you why she ruffles my feathers:

1) She abbreviates everything. {i.e. Perfect = “Perfs”, Totally = “Tots McGee”, Obviously = “Obs”}

2) She pronounces the word “basil” — ” baaaaaaazullll” (baa like a sheep)

3) She washes our plastic red party cups and our plastic silverware.

4) She fancies flea markets, dollar sales, Polaroids, and ethnic food. Just like me.

5) She will often tell the Starbucks barista that her name is “Caroline” or “Beatrice” or “Eleanor” in a British / Kiwi / Spanish / French accent.

6) She can find a use for everything and anything: from pants pockets to broken plates. She is a crafting wizard. She could make art out of dirt, literally. Thanks to her I changed all the buttons off my jackets and replaced them with silly non-matching ones. Just to be unique.

7) She sews with extra colorful, extra fun friendship bracelet thread. Because it’s cooler than normal thread.

8 ) She rocks a fannypack. And I mean rocks it.

9) She is a citizen of the world and loves people for being people. Period.

10) She has an Arepa machine. It only makes Arepas (Venezuelan deliciousness). And they are wonderful. She can also fry plantains.

11) She has the strongest values of anyone I know, and I am constantly reminded by the wafting hugs of her kind soul to check my pride and my attitude at the door when I walk into our apartment. She never judges me for my mistakes or my misfortunes.

12) She loves me for who I am.

Who needs 10 reasons when you’ve got 12?

Girl, I miss you and I love you. Can’t wait to see you in just a few weeks.

Published in: on April 20, 2010 at 7:27 am  Comments (2)  


So I think you are all aware of my love affair with TED.

TED is my comfort food: my gummy bears, my frozen bananas with sprinkles.

TED is my professor: my education, my mentor, my fountain of knowledge.

TED is my friend: my jogging partner, my advice, my road trip buddy.

TED is my lover: my inspiration, my great big hug, my challenger.

If TED was a house, I would live in it. If TED was a tomato, I would chop it up, make caprese salad, and stuff myself with it.

So you must understand when the second annual TED was announced, my elation knew no bounds.

I submitted my application within seconds of getting the email, and now I am here, joined by more than 1200 fellow students, professors, and other members of my community, waiting for the mind-molding to begin.

Here’s how TEDx works (and if you don’t go watch a video at TED.com immediately after watching this, you are hereby banned from my blog):

  • USC, inspired buy the TED revolution, wanted to create their own TED event, drawing upon the immense talent of individuals on campus and in the USC community.
  • So they asked the most compelling individuals, challenging them to give the “talk of their lives” in 18 minutes or less.

If you had 18 minutes or less, what would you say?

The real beauty of TEDx: you and me and he and she can put on a TEDx event anytime. TED is a democracy and everyone can play.

It allows schools, companies, even groups of friends to provide a platform for unique ideas and inspiration. What began in this Southern California university has now spread across cities, states, and countries. There are now TEDx events everywhere from Memphis to Stockholm to Rio de Janeiro.

So it is with great pleasure that I welcome you to TEDxUSC:

To warm up your brain, let’s play a game. I’ll give you this roman numeral


Add one line to make the number value 12…

And you get:


Now take this roman numeral, and add one line to make the numeral value  6…



Still scratching your head?

Here’s the answer:


A little bit of expertise gets in the way of a clever solution, now doesn’t it?

With that, I would like to introduce the great speakers I got to listen to at TEDxUSC.

These speakers hailed from many different fields: from robotics to social work, linguistics to neurology, adventure seeking to astronomy, and even one individual who had no field to speak of.

Even more compelling than their fields of interest or their individual projects was the fact that these speakers, as do just about all of the TED speakers

{ D E F Y     F E A R}

They take the ideas and thoughts that we fear the most and they turn them into productivity, creativity. Most importantly, they use that power, that power one gets from telling fear to





to harness an energy that can create change on a massive scale throughout the world.

To begin, we will take the most obvious fear:

{D E A T H}

T H E   H U M A N    B I R D

If you didn’t watch this video, Jeb is a base jumper. But in this video, we see something a little different than typical base jumping. Using a squirrel suit, Jeb scrapes over the cliff faces of massive empires of mountains, brushing hairs with death at every moment.

He is flying.

Like a bird.

Jeb says he goes into it expecting death.

But it feels so damn good.

Maybe we’re not all built to jump out of airplanes. But Jeb’s words of wisdom are golden, especially coming from someone who, after watching his video, you can only assume to be completely out of his mind.

“The lead up to it is usually the most intimidating part. And standing on the edge of the helicopter, that’s when the real fear sets in.

Once you leave and you START TO FLY, all you’re thinking about is


When Jeb jumps off a building, or out of an airplane, or in one case through the center of the Eiffel Tower after doing a double-reverse flip

He doesn’t think it’s going to work

He knows it’s going to work.

Jeb says he has the same kind of fear as everybody else. He is no stronger, no stupider, no braver. The only difference between Jeb Corliss and you (assuming you’re not mildly insane) or me is that he has learned how to control his fears.

You can either let fear control you, or you can learn to control it.

Jeb’s newest endeavor?

Jumping out of an aircraft and landing on the ground without deploying a parachute.

But don’t worry Mrs. Corliss, he’s got NASA engineers working on it, so it’ll be all good.

{R E J E C T I O N}

5 0 J O B S. 5 0 S T A T E S. 5 0 W E E K S.

After being rejected more than 5000 times, Daniel Seddiqui no longer fears rejection.

His biggest fear?

Filing taxes in all 50 states.

With only one more semester left at USC and still no internship prospects for my last and most important (work experience-wise) summer of college, hearing Daniel talk about graduating from USC with an Economics degree and having no money, no jobs, and no prospects of a job was slightly disheartening. If Daniel couldn’t get a job with an Econ degree, then I definitely won’t get a job with an International Relations degree!

So, in the face of seemingly zero opportunities, Daniel asked,

Where are all the opportunities in this great country?

And he set out to get

50 JOBS in

50 STATES in


And he did.

He chose very stereotypical jobs in each and every state. For example:

Colorado    |     Hydrologist

South Dakota   |     Radio Announcer

Nevada     |     Officiated Weddings

Oregon    |    Logger

Kansas    |    Meatpacker

New Orleans    |    Bartender

Kentucky    |     Horse Farm

Vermont    |     Tapped Maple Syrup

Florida    |    Egyptian Stilt Walker

West Virgina    |     Coal Miner

Pennsylvania    |    Furniture-maker for the Amish

California    |     Worked in a Winery

Maine    |     Lobster Fisherman

Hawaii    |     Surfing Instructor

Living in a different city each week, sometimes with cowboys or the Amish or Cheeseheads, sometimes in pueblos or resorts or trailer parks, Daniel had to learn how to adapt to different situations, cultures, and even languages.

All in his own country.

His biggest lessons?

Be Persistent.

Take Risks.

Have Endurance.

Network (like there’s no tomorrow)

The more people he met, the more opportunities he created.

He created.

The job search isn’t about letting people give you a job. It’s about getting a job.

I was complaining the other day about how I have so much to offer, but have not been given the chances to succeed. Sorry me, but that’s BS. Plain and simple.

We create our own success. If we want something, we better go and get it.

Daniel had more jobs than most USC graduates will ever have. Given, they were mostly menial labor jobs, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t acquire skills and experiences that will help him succeed in the future.

His voyage wreaked of uncertainty. But he used that to his advantage.

“It’s all up to you,” says Daniel. “You choose your own destiny. It’s all about self-drive and self-motivation. When I ran cross-country at USC, the coach gave me all the advice and instruction that I needed. But when that gun when off

it was all up to me.”

{ C H A N G E }


Space is far away.

I mean really far away.

And I rarely think about it.

But for Nick Patrick, space feels like home.

He just recently returned from the International Space Station, where he was installing the final piece of the station, a bay window for the spacecraft which provides a panoramic view of….

The Earth, The Moon, The Stars.

And you thought your beachfront oceanview timeshare in Cabo was a sweet deal.

Nick spoke of the value of the scientific motives behind space exploration. But more than that, he says, the value of going into outer space is about

Learning how to live there.

It’s about changing your perspectives, and everything you know and are comfortable with, to live in a different environment.

Space, for Nick, is about the unique perspective that comes from both the view and the challenges.

Nick tells us about the behavior he had to change in order to adapt to life in space:

You have to learn how to hold on. Gravity has taken a leave of absence.

You have to learn how not to hold on. Float gracefully, and you won’t get lost in space.

You have to re-learn how to eat. Your spoon of Space Yogurt must carefully make the journey from the packet to your mouth.

Real estate is limited, so you make do. Nick has discovered the perfect piece of wasted real estate to sleep on: the ceiling.

Things drop up. If you drop a pen, it won’t be down on the floor, where you look for it.

Think globally. Literally.

Nick has experienced change in norms and lifestyle to an extent that many of us can only imagine.

But he says, that change is relative; and space is the perfect place to think about change.

Innovation is a force which changes the world.

It should also be a force for not letting the world change.”

{ T H E   U N K N O W N }

T H E    R E A L   A V A T A R

Paul Frommer is a professor at USC.

He created Na’vi, the language spoken in Avatar.

He jumps on stage, disappointingly flesh-colored and tail-less. But his tongue clicks and foreign sounds convinced me of his Avatar status.

You can learn some Na’vi too:

Kaltxií _____ Hello

(Make a t-sound without breathing out and quickly add a vowel)

Oel ngati kameie ______ I see you

(prounounced well nati kamaye)

Ngaru lu fpom srak? ______ How are you?

(srak implies question)

Nga za’u fitseng pxim srak? ­­______ Do you come here often?

Ngeyä ____ lor lu nitxan ­­_______ Your __ is/are very beautiful

Menarí ______ Eyes

Meseyrí ______ Lips

Key ______ Face

Kxetse ______ Tail

Lrrtok ______ Smile

Nga yawne lu oer _______ I love you.

(prounounced Nya yawnee lu where)

Eywa ngahu _______ Eywa be with you.

{ D I F F E R E N T }

T H I N K S    L I K E   A    C O W

Unfortunately, we didn’t get the live version of Temple Grandin, but we did get to watch her TED Talk, and so can you:

Temple Grandin has been instrumental in making slaughtering methods more humane in the United States.


Because she thinks like an animal.

“My mind works like Google Images,” she says.

She is severely autistic. But she loves the fact that she’s different, and she’s not afraid to show it.

In fact, she says:

The world needs different kinds of minds to work together.

Watch the trailer for the new HBO Temple Grandin movie starring Claire Danes:

{ L O S S }


Johanna Blakely, the Deputy Director of the Norman Lear Center gets on stage, looking cute as a button.

She tells a story of Mario Prada, who is shopping at a vintage store in Paris, and finds a jacket that he absolutely loves. He begins to examine it very closely. His friend suggests that he buy it. Prada responds, “I’m not just going to buy it. I’m going to

replicate it.”

Despite what you might think (and what I assumed), Prada’s plan is perfectly legal.

The fashion industry has no copyright protection and no patent protection. Trademark protection is the only way to preserve you property via your logo, which results in the Louis Vuitton logo plastered all over every product.

Blakely explains that apparel design is considered too utilitarian to qualify for copyright protection?

Can you imagine if Armani had patented the shirt collar?

We usually assume that without ownership, there is no incentive to innovate. But actually,

Industries that operate without copyright laws have significantly higher sales revenue than industries that operate with copyright laws.

What else can’t be copyrighted?

–      Hairdos

–      Magic Tricks

–      Tattoo Artists

–      Open source technology

–      Recipes

–      Firework displays

–      Cars

–      Perfume fragrances

–      Databases

The lack of ownership in the fashion industry, and other industries, has actually created a more OPEN CREATIVE PROCESS.

After all, who owns a look? Who owns a trend?

Without ownership, designers have to up their game, search for individuality, and keep creating new looks that are more innovative and unique than their competition.

Fun fact: Jazz musician Charlie Parker once said that the reason he created bebop was because he thought it would be too difficult for white musicians to copy.

He wanted to be unique. So he upped the ante.

So, Johanna asks, what is the kind of ownership model in this age that’s going to lead to the most innovation?

Is loss of ownership really that much of a loss in the long term?

Read more about Johanna’s project at www.readytoshare.org.

{ L O N E L I N E S S }

A    R O B O T ‘ S    P L A Y D A T E

To introduce Maya, Bandit the robot wheels on stage, donning his red and gold USC sweatshirt, ready to take charge.

Bandit is a social robot and a result of the work of Maja and her colleagues at the USC Interaction Lab.

Maja and Bandit believe that social robots can be used to vastly improve human health and the quality of life.

Today in the United States, people suffer from:

800,000 strokes / year

16 million cases of Alzheimer’s Disease

1 in 100 children diagnosed with Autism

Perhaps Bandit can’t give you a huge when you’re feeling down, but there are a lot of things he can do without any physical contact.

Monitoring: robots are capable of early detection of conditions, and can dramatically reduce the risk of injury

Coaching: they can help stroke patients, for example, regain and retain function

Motivation: they push you to stick to your therapy, motivate you to maintain a healthy lifestyle

Companionship: can be effective for combating isolation and depression

Bandit and his robot friends have already been applied to real-life situations.

They have helped stroke patients with their therapy, resulting in patients performing longer when exercising.

They have provided monitoring for the elderly as well as companionship.

They have coached autistic children to help detect social cues and help the child relate in a peer-to-peer like fashion.

Not convinced?

I watched Bandit direct Maja to do certain physical exercises and monitored her performance.

And don’t worry, Bandit even tells jokes.

Read more about the Interaction Lab’s work:


{ C H A O S }

P L A Y S    W I T H  M A R B L E S

If you have ever seen an OK Go music video, then you know that they are incredibly fun and creative.

For their newest single, “This Too Shall Pass,” they approached Adam Sadowski at Synn Labs.

They wanted him to build a machine.

But not just any machine.

The machine.

This machine had to do a number of things, Adam’s so-called “10 Commandments” of the machine:

1)    No “magic.” This had to clearly be real.

2)   Band integration

3)   Machine action should follow the feeling of the song

4)   Must make use of the space (a giant warehouse)

5)   Had to be MESSY

6)   The machine must start the music

7)   It must be synched to the rhythm and hit specific beats of the song

8)   Must end precisely on time

9)   Should play part of the song.

And the kicker…

10)                  Had to be done in ONE SHOT!

So, the machine featured in the video has:

–      Has 89 machine interactions

–      Took 85 takes

–      Only 3 successful runs

–      Destroyed 2 pianos and 10 tvs

–      Required over 100 trips to Home Depot

–      Claimed the high heel shoe of a creator

Talk about fear of chaos. You’ll see.

And so, on behalf of Adam Sadowski, I give you the machine:

I wish I had time to show you all of the speakers; better yet, I wish I could give you the pleasure of seeing all these talks in real life!

But these are some GREAT HIGHLIGHTS! Of course I couldn’t forget about Skip Rizzo, who designed new virtual technologies to help psychiatrists and social workers, or Peter Erskine’s fabulous drumming from the USC Drum Lab, or Leslie Saxon’s internal defibrillator, the iPad of defibrillators, or any of the other great speakers.

But I thought I’d share how others, as Jeb put it,

Control their fears.

I hope you’ve been inspired by these ideas worth sharing.

Visit TED.com to watch more TED Talks. Please!

Published in: on April 15, 2010 at 11:55 pm  Comments (1)  
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To You, I Tip My Hat

Dear Peter Beard,

You set my eyes a’flutter

at times when I only want to close them to the world

I tip my hat to you.

Yours, with peace and love,


Published in: on April 7, 2010 at 4:51 am  Comments (1)  
Tags: ,

My First Place Photo

My Third Place Essay

Soon to be on TransitionsAbroad.com

A Desert Dream: The View From Above the Dunes of Egypt

By Rachel Tobias

The sun has set behind the swampland of the riverbed as we float on a felucca, awaiting a glorious Nubian meal prepared for us by our crew of two men. We have spent the afternoon reading, sipping on hibiscus tea, listening to the Nile lap its way into our inner rhythms. Our first mate quietly takes a break from preparing our supper to spread his small rug out on the hull and proceed with his evening prayer – standing, then kneeling, then meeting his forehead to the rug, and repeat. We will spend the night on this felucca, lulled to sleep by whispers of the Nile and campfire kisses. The warm air turns cold in the early morning hours, but it’s worth it just to watch the sun rise over the palm trees.

I will break out the watercolors (a new resolution to paint once or twice a week) and let my mind water as I try to capture the scenery on a small white page that barely does justice to a water droplet. I will envision myself in a new place, a new land, experiencing a different culture complete with its own ways of life and ways of thought. Some I will agree with, some I will not. But at least I can try to understand why, which quickly is becoming my favorite word. I wonder whom I will befriend. Or who will befriend me. I wonder what I will miss most from home: family, friends, ice cubes, Swedish Fish, lettuce, rock climbing, my car, my freedom.

Finding My Place in the Land of Insha’Allah

Because I had spent two years learning Arabic at USC, intent to learn a language that could potentially connect me with the cultures and countries we have yet to make peace with, the only two options for studying abroad through my university (and receiving transfer credit) were Egypt and Jordan. The 6th grade history buff in me who had always yearned to see the Great Pyramids urged me to choose the land of King Tut. And so, in August of my junior year of college, I found myself wandering the streets of Cairo.

The first obstacle was finding a place to live. The American University was about an hour outside of downtown Cairo, which made both the commute and the idea of living on campus unappealing. If attending AUC, you have the option of staying in alternative dorms in Zamalek, which his a small island on the Nile right in the heart of Cairo, still connected to the madness of the city by straddling bridges which I had to cross every day to begin my long journey to the University. This island is the hub for ex-patriots and diplomats; the majority of the foreign embassies and consulates can be found on this little patch of land.

For a first time resident of Cairo, Zamalek is an ideal place to live. Zamalek is a lovely place: it is one of the higher-end places in the city and its spattering of embassies makes it the primary place of residence for many diplomats and ex-patriots. There are an abundance of cafes, shiisha bars, food delivery bikes, and taxicabs, which beep their horns as regularly as they breathe. There are good supermarkets like Seoudi Market, Alfa Market, and Metro, which carry some American brands of cereal and other products. On Halloween, I was even able to find canned pumpkin to make pumpkin pie! Aside from having some conveniences to cater to foreigners, Zamalek has the perfect combination of Egyptian culture and language without being overwhelming or intimidating. Although it is a higher-end area, you will still be greeted each morning by families of cats gracing your doorstep, scavenging for treasures in the garbage, which decorates the streets. I learned to walk on the pavement rather than the sidewalk, since it is easy to turn an ankle on the cracked and uneven concrete, and the external air conditioners dripping on to the sidewalk are not an appealing alternative to a shower.

If you are looking to stay in a very local area, without having much contact with foreigners, you may want to consider either Downtown or Mohandiseen. Options for those looking to avoid local areas may want to explore Maadi, which feels almost like a U.S. suburb. For me, Zamalek was a great place to be, although I made the decision to live in my own apartment rather than in the AUC dorms. I wanted to be able to interact with the locals and have a life separate from AUC. After all, learning Arabic was not going to happen in a classroom. I rented an apartment for about a third of the price I would have paid for the same apartment in Los Angeles.

Despite the low cost of living and the amount of foreigners living in Zamalek, it is still hard to find the same standard of living as you might find at home. For example, I would constantly return to my apartment to find that we had no water and no Internet. I rarely had hot water and never found a clothes dryer, even at the “dry cleaning” shops. I learned to love my starchy, air-dried wardrobe and my loose jeans. Every apartment has a bowab, or doorman, who oversees those going in and out of the building. Few of the bowabs or landlords speak English, so trying to get anything fixed can be a struggle. “Plumbing” vocabulary was not in my Arabic dictionary. If you decide to live in an apartment, it is preferable to find a building whose bowab speaks at least some English.

Even though my second bowab spoke enough English and I enough Arabic to communicate effectively, I still had to learn the art of patience. Egypt is the land of Insha’allah. Insha’allah means God willing. Everything in Egypt is God willing. We will have water by 5pm? Insha’allah. I will see you tonight? Insha’allah. The plane is leaving at 10? Insha’allah. May I please order dinner? Insha’allah. This was a place where I had to adapt to a slower mode of living and means to action. My fast-paced, LA lifestyle was just not sustainable in Cairo, and learning the art of patience was a process.

Life as a Woman

While I went to Cairo to experience a new culture and a new way of life, I think a part of me really believed I would just be an observer. It is, however, important for we travelers to realize that there is no such thing as observing your surroundings. We are all active participants of the world around us, even if we are quietly sitting at the outskirts. At first, I didn’t believe that I would be treated badly, even as a woman. After all, I was only an observer. How wrong I was.

I dreaded walking to the school bus every morning, a dread that arose from knowing I must keep my head down and wear my sunglasses so to avoid making eye contact with any men. I always dressed conservatively, often wearing jeans and tank top with a cardigan, never showing my legs, shoulders, or cleavage; however it probably wouldn’t have made much of a difference if I had been naked: my blonde hair and white skin attracted attention everywhere I went. As I walked down the street, I would hear the police officers and bowabs begin to whisper and feel their stares begin to penetrate thorough my shirt. I was constantly angry at this situation; Angry that I, and every other woman, could not smile and converse freely with others in the street. Angry that I had to put on a façade, and a rude one at that, in order to get by without any mushkelaat (problems).

For all the disconcerting looks and comments I got, I always felt ten times safer in Cairo than I do living in downtown Los Angeles at USC. I felt safe even walking alone at night in Zamalek, which I would never do near my apartment in the States. I never feared being robbed or raped, which has a lot to do both with the pride Egyptians have in themselves, as well as the high degree of religiosity that dominates all aspects of their lives.

What does lack towards women in Egypt is respect. I taught refugees once a week in a an area of Cairo called Ain Shams, which is about an hour and half away from my house in Zamalek. The cab ride can get pricy (less than $10, but pricy when you have adapted to the currency), so usually I took the metro home since it costed 1 Egyptian pound (less than 20 cents). Each train on the metro has a car specifically designated for women. Men are not allowed in this car, although if you are a woman you are welcome to ride in the men’s car. My first time on the metro, I did not know about the women’s car, so I hopped onto the first car I found open. The train was so crowded; men, only men were pressed up onto me like sardines. And the smell, oh goodness. After a few minutes, I felt someone’s hand touching my butt; since it was so crowded, I assumed it was an accident and started to move to another wall of the train. I realized the man who had been grabbing me was following me as I moved around the train, his hand on my butt the whole time with the most innocent look on his face. Had this happened at the end of my residency in Cairo, he may have received a good punch in the face and some rude Arabic words; but since I was new to the city and unsure of my boundaries, I remained quiet, and his hand remained on my rear.

From then on I rode in the women’s car.

On The Road

Imagine a freeway in the U.S., which has four, maybe five lanes for traffic, most people use their blinkers to change lanes, people wear seatbelts. Now imagine a freeway in Cairo. There are still four lanes of traffic, with seven to eight rows of cars wedged in together. Cars cross perhaps three lanes at a time, swerving left and right as they please and incredible speed, never thinking to use a blinker. Horns replace breathing on Cairo roads. Donkey carts, buses, and taxis populate the road at the same time.

There are different types of taxis in Cairo. The black taxis are cheaper, but have no meter and no seatbelts. Cairenes do not believe it is possible to die if sitting in the backseat of a vehicle, and therefore cut out the seatbelts for the sake of comfort. Yellow or white taxis have a meter, and are a safer option for those who have not yet mastered the art of negotiating the price of a trip. Taxis are a great way to practice your Arabic. Chances are, cab drivers will only want to talk about President Obama, reflecting the incredible change in the perception of Americans in the Middle East.

Embracing the Culture

Ramadan happened to fall during my first month in Egypt. Ramadan is the Muslim month of fasting, during which practicing Muslims should not eat, drink or smoke from sunrise to sunset. Alcohol, sex, and drugs are forbidden for the month. For that month, there are limited signs of life during the daylight hours: workdays were shortened and people slept during the day, waking up at 6:30pm for iftar (breakfast). A normal Ramadan weekday for me in Egypt went something like this:

5:30 am: Wake up for school to catch the 7am bus to the American University in Cairo with my three other American roommates. Take a cold shower (since we still have not had the privilege of hot water. Look at the bananas on the counter and resist the urge.

6:50 am: Walk to the bus stop with 50 other sleepy American students. Pass the bowab on the way out of my building’s elevator. Sabbah al-haier. Good morning.

7:00 am: Ride the bus about an hour to campus, during which everyone tries to get a few extra bumpy minutes of sleep.

8:30am: Modern Standard Arabic (fus-ha) with my professor Neshwa. Very strict. Realize I should have finished my homework instead of watching the Egypt-Algeria football match last night.

9:45 am: Walk to my next class, trying to avert eye contact with some of the more judgmental Egyptian students. The students at AUC are typically children of the Egyptian elite, and are not necessarily academically motivated. More pressing to them is their wardrobe. God forbid I wear Levis instead of designer jeans – I get the “look-up-then-look-down” from every Egyptian girl. The girls are glittering in Prada sunglasses and Coach sneakers; they don’t carry books or notebooks to school…once in a while they carry a tiny notepad, which I suppose could hold maybe a quarter of a century’s worth of notes in history class.

10:00 am: Egyptian Colloquial (ameeya) with Neshwa. Colloquial is necessary to communicate with Egyptians. While they will probably understand your formal Arabic, they will laugh at you: imagine one of your classmates speaking like Shakespeare.

11:30 am: Walk to my next class. It’s desperately hot and I really wish I could drink some water.

11:45 am – 3:30pm: My other classes, depending on the day include Intro to Development, Contemporary Political Islam, and the Rise to Power of Islamic Movements. It is fascinating to learn things about Development and Islam from a completely non-American perspective.

4:00 pm: Board the bus to return to Zamalek. Counting down the minutes to iftar, or “breakfast” when I will be permitted to have my first meal of the day.

5:20 pm: Arrive back to the apartment after walking past a dead neighborhood, while everyone twiddles their thumbs until they can eat again. Take a nap, so that I don’t think about how much I want water.

6:30 pm: IFTAR! Al-hamdul Allah! Thank God. Eat iftar either with friends or have something delivered. Everything delivers in Egypt. Any bizarre craving you might have could certainly be satiated by a deliveryman. The most popular restaurants let you order online on http://www.otlob.com/. I go to iftar at my Egyptian friend’s family’s house. It is mouthwatering, with piles and piles of dishes being served at a pace I can barely keep up with. There is koshary (rice, lentils, noodles, and a spicy sauce), sambousek (fried cheese), kebab, kofta, falafel, hummus, fool (very similar to Mexican bean dip), yogurt and mint dip. And then there is the fresh juice, which is one of the most delicious treats one can find in Egypt. They have juice in every flavor, although I prefer bateekh (watermelon) or ananaas (pineapple).  

7:15: Food coma. Turn on the TV to take my mind off how full I am. Pick one of the four English channels we have and am stuck watching “A Walk to Remember” Mandy Moore and Shane West are about to go in for a kiss. But wait, the kiss never happens. Kissing, sex, nudity or excessive touching is not allowed on Egyptian television. The movie goes to commercial. It is an anti-drug ad. Another commercial comes on. It is a pro-prayer ad. One of the most interesting changes here has been the lack of separation between church and state. In the U.S., we are so used to being able to say and do whatever we want, whenever we want. People who have religious beliefs can make their own choices. Here, the society and the government make your choices for you.

9:30 pm: Get dressed and meet friends for shiisha, the social pastime of almost everyone in Egypt.

12:00 am: Order sohoor (dinner/lunch). Usually something light for me since I still cannot justify eating a full meal at midnight. Sit with my Egyptian friends and share stories. My friends speak mostly in Arabic, translating for me now and again, forcing me to practice speaking to them in Arabic and not English.

A Desert Dream

One weekend we decided to take a break from the city madness and escape to Siwa Oasis, a seven-hour drive from Cairo. We spent our days sand boarding down giant sand dunes, pruning ourselves in bubbling hot springs, and absorbing the magic of Bedouin camps. Sitting on the sand dune one evening, I watched as the sun burned orange and purple into the dunes as it retired for the night. I looked out across the hundreds of miles of desert surrounding me, and knew that this was a perfect moment.

I don’t know if it was the sand or the wind or the water, but Siwa had seeped inside of me, infected my brain with its witchery, and captured my heart. Memories of the past six months began to set with the sun as I recalled them.  I was lucky to have had such wonderful Egyptian friends and had the privilege to shake hands with Egypt in a way that I never would have without being able to see things through the eyes and hearts of locals. I faced many frustrating and weary challenges, especially as a woman, but challenge was the goal of the experience. I became a resident, a “local” in my own way, participating rather than observing, and embracing both the joys and the frustrations of living in this captivating land.


American University in Cairo:


Cairo Scholars ListServ (Community of Ex-Pats in Cairo, I used this all the time)


Food Delivery:




Middle East Airlines:

http://www.egyptair.com/English/Pages/splashpage.aspx (flights are cheaper if you book as an Egyptian resident)




Games For Change

A contribution to the Ashoka Peace Blog at peace.ashoka.org

The only video game I’ve ever been good at was Nintendo Super Mario Brothers. When it comes to jumping up and down on mushrooms and rescuing beautiful princesses, I’m there. But give me a gun or a weapon and tell me to win a war, now you’ve lost me. Ironically, even Mario Brothers is based on killing.

The USC Society and Business Lab, where I work as an intern, recently hosted Alan Gershenfeld, founder of E-Line Media, a social games publishing company, and member of the Board of Directors for Games of Change. Before listening to Alan, I had no idea video games could change the world.

This morning, I planted a farm, built a shed and a barn, bought livestock, paid for a school and a road, and worked to sustain my family of four.

I also sent a Haitian family to work, to school, to volunteer, and took care of them when they got sick.

I negotiated with the Israeli Prime Minister to remove the wall dividing Jerusalem from Palestine, who politely told me I would need to fight terror before the wall could be removed.

Lastly, I started a homeless shelter in Los Angeles, thanks to a local grant.

Games for Change is a non-profit that promotes, quite simply, video games to change the world. These games span the areas of human rights, economics, public health, poverty, global conflict, the environment, and politics.

They make a foreign world relevant to children (and adults!) restricted by the challenges of their own lives and the system they are born into. And they are fun.

They are also quite difficult.

On 3rd World Farmer, crop season after crop season was hit with challenges. All of my barns and sheds burned down in a fire. My cattle were wiped out by a terrible virus. My peanut crop was destroyed, and the economy fell through the cracks, leaving me with barely enough money to afford a meager corn crop.

On Ayiti: The Cost of Life, my Haitian children got sick, couldn’t pay for school, and were forced to work in a factory to afford food. I could never afford to educate the parents well enough to get jobs that could sustain the family. Happiness, health, and education levels were always low.

I gave up on Peacemaker, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and negotiation game, after only 10 minutes. Enough said.

On Karma Tycoon, I could never get enough funding to sustain my non-profit homeless shelter, expand it, and serve the number of clients I needed to serve, to get enough karma.

These games presented me with issues I might never think about, had I not stumbled upon this game. After all, Super Mario never had to manage a farm or feed a family.

Imagine if parents encouraged their children to play video games. Imagine if they were incorporated into school curriculums. Perhaps games can lead to a vast understanding of the world around us, and the challenges we face in mending the Earth’s deepest wounds.

To read more about Games for Change, and all of the game-changing fun they offer, go to http://gamesforchange.org/.

To learn more about the games I played:

Karma Tycoon: http://www.karmatycoon.com/

3rd World Farmer: http://www.3rdworldfarmer.com/

Peacemaker: http://www.peacemakergame.com/

Ayiti: The Cost of Life: http://costoflife.ning.com/

The Entryway


The rabbit hole isn’t as far away as you think…

The topic is communism and China.

“Do you guys feel like you are free to do and say what you want in the U.S.?”

Not a hand. Not a word. I’m not speaking their language.

Okay, let’s switch gears I think, as I look at the kid who has the letters “F”, “U”, “C”, “K” tattooed on his fingers, sitting next to the 7-month pregnant sophomore girl who couldn’t be further away from thoughts of the restricted freedoms of the Chinese.

Let’s try due process…

“How many of you have ever known someone who has had to go to court?”

Almost the whole class raises their hand. Now they are getting it. I tell them how I was nearly arrested in Beijing for trying to give away an extra ticket to an Olympic soccer game, and how not one police officer would listen to what I had to say. This they got.

Every semester I teach International Relations to high school students in the Los Angeles inner city. Some classes are less difficult than others, but they are never easy. This semester I am teaching at Fremont high school, where less than 14% of students tested proficient or better in the English language, and less than 60% of students graduated last year.

The worst part, the fear of which I have finally conquered, is getting up in front of a class of mostly Latino and African American students living below or just above the poverty line, and watching them size me up. They know I’m not fluent in “them.”

Usually they don’t care that I’m there. They don’t care about what I have to say. I have had classes where students wreak of marijuana at 8:15 in the morning. I have had other students picking out baby names in the final months of their pregnancy. Apathy and resignation doesn’t come just from the students, however. I once had a teacher tell me that these students were destined for nothing more than failure and poverty, and that he had accepted this “fact” long ago.

The bottom line: I always feel like a stranger.

And I always feel guilty.

Flooded with these feelings, it was a terrible idea to watch “The Blindside” right after my first day back to teaching. Even though my mom pointed out that it is supposed to be a happy movie, I spent the better half of the movie in tears. There are so many kids who don’t get the opportunities that Michael Oher got. Why am I so lucky? Why did I get the life that I got? Why did I get born into a family who loves me and cares about my well-being?

Thank you Sandra, now I know.

“The Blindside” is a story of extraordinary kindness, not pity. I should not be guilty when I teach at Fremont. I know that I have been given the privileges and blessings in this lifetime because I am meant to use them to help others. Period.

There is nothing that differentiates me from any of the kids in my classroom, except that the universe decided to give me face cards, for some arbitrary reason. Why run away from the frustration of these weekly classes? This is an opportunity to learn, to experience, to participate, rather than observe.

Speaking of participating, I recently came upon this L.A. journalism project that I found enormously heroic and revolutionary. In this changing world, journalists are challenged to find new ways of telling stories. Devin Browne and Kara Mears have found a way to bridge two lifestyles that we typically keep as far apart as physically possible.

Los Angeles is “my city.” A city of great live music, flea market treasures, valets, LuluLemon hillltop hikes, palm trees and seashells and green tea lattes and ethnic food. But my L.A. is not the only L.A.

The Entryway is a revolutionary project, one that I encourage you all to explore. These two young reporters have moved into a roach-infested entryway of the house of  a Mexican immigrant family living in MacArthur Park, a toilet-paper-sharing, police-raid, gang-member, television-addicted L.A., one that challenges every norm and perspective they have come to know was well-to-do white women, who have never had to question the challenges of toilet paper,  or anything else for that matter. I’ll take a page from their book.

Life is about perspective.

Even from an entryway.

Time to find my own entryway.


(Photo Credit 1: Rachel Tobias)

(Photo Credit 2: Kara Mears)