Can’t top that smile. :-)

Just last week I posted an update detailing a Global Village trip with Habitat for Humanity to Kyrgyzstan during August 2014.  You can read more about how our team helped to make Jolboldu’s dream of owning a safe and decent home for his family here.

This morning I got the final piece of the puzzle – photos of Ryskiul hosting her welcome/New Years party in her new home! What a great way to ring in 2016. 🙂



Best wishes to you and your family as you celebrate the holidays too!



A Home for the Holidays (and Beyond!)

What great news I received this week – Jolboldu and his family moved into their brand new Habitat for Humanity home two weeks ago!  They are excited beyond words…and so am I!!!  How did this happen and what makes it so exciting?  Ah…read on. 🙂

I first “met” this family when I began planning a Habitat for Humanity Global Village trip to Kyrgyzstan.  Yes, that’s right, Kyrgyzstan.  I had heard good things about this place, it was a “unique” destination (to say the least) and I am always up for a challenge so I thought – let’s go!

Imankulov Jolboldu and his wife Ryskiul live with their children in Barskoon village near Lake Issyk Kul (a beautiful place!).  Jolboldu works in the town administration.  Ryskiul cares for the children during the day and earns extra income for the family as a night watchman at the local pharmacy.  They were living in a home that is very old and deteriorating –  irreparable cracks in the walls and roof are constantly expanding.  It is also quite small for the family and to make matters worse, only one of the two rooms is heated.  Here are some photos of the house where the family lived in for 10+ years:


Jolboldu and Ryskiul desired a safer place for their children to grow up and applied for a loan from Habitat for Humanity Kyrgyzstan  under their New House Construction Program.  When I arrived in Kyrgyzstan in August 2014 with 10 other volunteers, we were the 4th Global Village team to work on this home.

02-IMG_0391We spent two weeks doing what we could to bring their dream of owning a safe home closer to reality.  The home is different in many ways than others I worked on during previous Global Village trips.  For one thing – there was wood. 🙂  Kyrgyzstan is in an earthquake zone and housing recipients are trained in building techniques designed to withstand the forces of nature.  Walls in Habitat homes in Barskoon are constructed by affixing wood strapping to each side of the studs and then filling the ~6 inch gap in between with a mud-straw mixture (a different technique is used in the urban areas of the country’s capital, Bishkek – a subject for a future post).

Our first task was to complete the exterior walls.  Jolboldu was an expert at the pitchfork-mud-throw technique…and under his tutelage, Tony soon became an expert too.  The rest of us relied on the more traditional “mudball stuffing” method. 🙂


05-IMG_0441After about 2 days, we finished the exterior walls and thought we were really getting ahead!  But not so fast…the interior walls needed stuffing next.  Oh my!

We were undaunted…and very safe.  Don’t worry Terry, there’s only about a 10 foot drop under your round-barrel scaffolding.  Jolboldu won’t let you fall!  We also recruited extra help from every extended family member who stopped by the worksite.   Well, it was more like we couldn’t keep them away, they were so excited. 🙂  How does she stay so clean when I have mud in my hair, in my mouth, even on the inside of my glasses…???


By the time Pat and Julie placed the final mud ball, we all felt like we had accomplished so much!  And Ryskiul, who was sidelined with a broken arm while we were working, was all smiles. 🙂 🙂  I mean who wouldn’t be – the walls were complete, the roof was going on and check out the view from the bedroom!


We still had a few work days left and spent them installing the concrete floor.   If you’ve never participated in a bucket brigade, you’re missing out.  We passed buckets of sand, leveled the base layer, laid insulating foam and a waterproof barrier, then passed what must have been thousands of buckets of concrete.  OK.  Maybe just a few hundred, but it really did seem like a lot…  The floor was finally leveled and – wow, it’s starting to look like a home!

14-IMG_2047By the time we said goodbye, Jolboldu and Ryskiul were much closer to moving in.  They are incredibly kind and we each left a little piece of our heart with them in their new home.


19-IMG_2014In two weeks, we were able to make great progress and met the goals we had for ourselves, but there was still much to do. We left Kyrgyzstan knowing that there was a good chance the house would not be complete before the winter. Two additional teams came but there was simply too much to finish before the cold set in. The family would have to wait a little longer…

And this brings us back to where I started – over the summer, the finishing touches were added and as of two weeks ago, Jolboldu and his family are living in their new home!  Here are some photos of the finished home in all of it’s glory…stay tuned for updates and pictures of this wonderful family at home after New Years Day! 🙂


The Incident of the Raw Horse

One of the best parts of traveling (well, really, of life?) is eating. 🙂  When you travel around the world, you are suddenly exposed to so many new types of food – often some that surprise you, for better or for worse.

When I began to venture out of the US, this proposition was kind of scary…  The first time I remember leaving the country was when I was 13 and we crossed the border to Tijuana.  At the closest border town, my sister and I were commanded by our mom to “eat, drink and go to the bathroom now because you’re not doing it again until we return!”.  Needless to say, I did not sample any Mexican cuisine on that outing.

The next time I left the US was on a school trip to the Soviet Union.  Yes, it was still called “The Soviet Union” at that time.  I don’t remember much about the food, but I’m pretty sure I ate a lot of potatoes and bread (because beets taste like dirt [this article explains why and appeals to my scientific nature] and I wasn’t about to eat little slimy fish with their heads still attached…).  It’s a wonder I didn’t come home with scurvy…  What I do remember is my camera film being confiscated on our “commute home” at the East/West Berlin border crossing (yes…still in existence too…) by a very large German man with a gun.  But that’s a story for another day. 🙂

In my early travel years, I admit to being “one of those people” that sought out the most “American” looking food I could find because it seemed “safe”.  I drew the line at McDonalds, but if there was an American chain restaurant in sight or a recognizable packaged snack at the store, there’s a good chance I headed toward it.  Thankfully that phase didn’t last long – now I am excited to explore everything (everything?) that local cuisines have to offer.  And boy have I sampled it.

It’s hard to describe some of the surprises that have been placed before me.  Rabbit ears, duck tongues, and scorpions (China), mice on a stick (Malawi), termites (Kenya), and a lot of unidentifiable creatures from the sea (Japan) are just a few that are on the list.  Sometimes I can handle it – the rabbit ears were actually cold, pickled, and surprisingly tasty. 🙂  But sometimes there is absolutely zero chance.  Those mice still had FUR!!

This is, of course, balanced by the delicious dishes that make up 90%+ of what I actually eat overseas.  Who can argue with a delicious wine and pasta dinner in Italy?  Or fresh sushi and sake in Japan, ugali and kachumbari in Kenya, homemade bread and apricot jam in Kyrgyzstan??  If you keep your mind open, the possibilities are endless.  In fact, I’m starting to collect these gems on my very first Pinterest board.  Don’t judge – I’m just starting – but what a way to start. 🙂

This finally brings me around to the title of the post.  It’s true.  I reached a new level on my last trip to Japan.  The conversation went something like this:

Him: “we’re going to order this because we love it and you won’t eat it, so we will have it all!”.

Me:  “OK.  We’ll see….”

ONLY with the help of a generous sake selection did the Horse Sashimi have a chance.


And when it happened…it really wasn’t too bad. 🙂  Kind of like beef tartare…

So the moral of the story is?  Don’t be afraid – just eat it! 🙂

Meet Emily’s Family

As I was finishing the preparation of this post, two things went through my head:

  1. “Wow – this blog is becoming so serious! I need to post some more fun things…” I DO travel a lot for fun.  OK – so the post after this will be something just for fun. 🙂
  2. “Hmmm…this has gotten longer than I intended…” Two options: break the post into Part 1 and Part 2, to make it easier to digest, or just go for it. Well, I decided the story tells itself best as one big post. Take your time – it’ll be here when you’re ready!

So here we go.  🙂

In July, I embarked on a one week volunteer trip with Habitat for Humanity’s Global Village Program, leading a group of 15 other volunteers to Salima, Malawi building homes for families in need. This was my fifth time volunteering in Africa, but my first time visiting Malawi. I quickly learned why they call Malawi “the warm heart of Africa”!

Because we were such a large group, we were split onto two different build sites. Our goal was to complete one home per team over the course of just 5 days. Would we be able to accomplish this task? The stakes were never higher, so we gave it our all.

On my build site, the family we were working for is headed by a 45-year old woman named Emily. Emily had lost her own family some years ago, and was willing to take on responsibility for several orphaned children within the village she called home. Currently, she cares for three siblings: Mercy (age 18), Yakobo (age 13), and Brenda (age 10). Here they are!


At the start of the year, these four people were living in a two-roomed house made of unburnt clay bricks with a grass thatched roof and a dirt floor.* The house contained no windows and had very poor ventilation – which led to many illnesses including colds, malaria and skin irritations. The roof was not waterproof. There was no proper toilet. Here’s a photo of Emily, Yakobo and Brenda in front of their old home:

OldHouse In fact, the house was in such poor condition that prior to our arrival it completely collapsed (luckily no one was hurt). The family was forced to move in with a neighbor. Here are some photos of the house where they were living when I arrived:


(left) Exterior view of current home (right) View of living/eating            space and childrens room

Because of their poor living conditions, each of the children often miss school (Mercy is in grade 4, Yakobo in grade 3, and Brenda in grade 2). Mercy summed up their troubles in a very succinct way: “We often skip classes at school because our books get wet and clothes soaked from rain water. It’s hard to sleep when standing up but we do it because we have no choice. Our life is miserable and very hard because of the house we live in.”

Sleep standing up because your house is all wet????  I can’t imagine.

The vision of Habitat for Humanity is “a world where everyone has a decent place to live.” In a village like the one we visited, the need is obvious. We were lucky to participate in a special program supporting Orphans and Vulnerable Children in Malawi. According to the mandate of this program, community organizations and village chiefs identify families who are in the greatest need and then work with Habitat to provide a new home for them at no cost. The houses are basic, around 300 square feet, but safe and durable. There are generally 2 or 3 rooms with little to no furniture. Cooking is done outside. An outdoor, brick and cement latrine is also provided. We had a chance to visit one finished home and meet the proud home owner during our time in Salima:

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clockwise from top left:  a) exterior of finished home, b) sleeping area for the family, with sacks used to store all belongings (clothing, fertilizer, and food), c) living area with cooking utensils d) permanent, non-leaking tin roof!

When Emily’s family learned that they had been selected, their joy was palpable. “We are happy that Habitat has given us a chance of owning a house. A lot will change in our lives and I look forward to that day”, said Mercy.

So what can a team of 8 volunteers and 3 local workers accomplish in a week? You’d be surprised! When we arrived, the foundation and corners of the house had been already prepared.


Over the course of the next three days, we successfully built up the walls to roof level!


After the gables were added by the local workers, tin was installed and we finished leveling the floors:

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Although our time was up, the family was expecting to move into their new home within 1-2 weeks following our departure. The only tasks remaining were to install the doors and windows, and then pour the concrete floor. On our last day, everyone celebrated this huge life changing moment!

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My impressions of Malawi are both joyful and tragic. The people are incredibly resilient in the face of so many obstacles. I’m grateful to have experienced such a welcoming community, and to have spent a week getting to learn more about these families. My heart aches for even the most basic physical comforts that they will never know, but I have learned from them that even in hardship, there are important things in life that we should never take for granted: the pleasure of being part of a family, the incredible amount of support that a close knit community provides, the capacity of the human spirit to always strive to make yourself a better person – no matter what your circumstances. Their smiles touch your soul. I can’t wait to return. 🙂

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*family details and quotes were provided by Habitat for Humanity Malawi

Post Script to “Primary School in Malawi”…

My last post seems to have instigated some discussion – thanks for the messages!  After posting, I watched a wonderful documentary that I many of you may enjoy, so I wanted to share the details.

“On the Way to School” chronicles a few of the physical struggles that some families around the world have to overcome in order to allow their children to attend school.  Reviews  from New York to LA are positive yet hesitant – raising the issue of the depth of the stories in the face of beautiful landscapes and a somewhat glorified depiction of these rural families.  Despite these potential criticisms, I think this movie is a great reminder to those of us who think that a good education is an expectation, rather than a privilege.  Based on my travels, the stories are very real and the children will make you smile. 🙂

I watched “On the Way to School” for free through my local library, but you can also get a copy via iTunes, NetFlix, and other online services.