I Speak With My Eyes (2020 Quarantine Edition)

Last week I had to attend 2 essential appointments.  I did so with all of the appropriate precautions, including my latest fashion accessory…

Both appointments were with people who I see regularly but not very often.  As I approached, a strange thought occurred to me – would they recognize me like this?  What features do you pick up on to “recognize” someone?  Do you need to see someone’s face or can you just hear their voice, note their clothes, see their mannerisms and the way they enter the room?   And this reminded me of a story…..

I’ve had the opportunity to travel and volunteer twice in the country of Jordan.  Before my first trip, I had never visited any country in the Middle East and, like many people, I had no idea what to expect.  I think there are a lot of preconceived notions, mostly misconceptions and stereotypes, about the people and culture of this region.  I went with an open mind because really – isn’t this one reason why travel is so important?  To educate, to share, to experience for yourself and form your own opinions…  I was excited to take it all in!

Jordanians are extremely welcoming and I was lucky to have excellent company on this trip.  One of the first things I noticed and was curious to learn more about (in addition to the delicious food!) was the style of dress for the women.  In this country, about 95% of people are Muslim and 5% are Christian.  People are very accommodating of others traditions and I saw people wearing everything from cute tops and skinny jeans to “regular” outfits topped off with hijabs to full burkhas.  I’m definitely no expert on the different types of head coverings, but here’s some info if you are interested in learning more.

When our team arrived at our Habitat for Humanity Global Village location, we met with the family of Mr. and Mrs. S who were excited to soon have a home of their own!

We worked side by side, day by day, and not once did Mrs. S hesitate to put on gloves and get dirty with the rest of us.  She became one of my two wall-building partners that week. 🙂

Clearly, the fact that women here dress conservatively does not mean that they are limited!  In fact, I also had a chance to meet a group of women who have started their own community-based organization (CBO) – by women, for women.  To my knowledge, they now work with over 50 women in their community.  Their work focuses on seeking solutions to life’s daily challenges, identifying opportunities for all and generally providing a network of support for women.  The concept of women’s economic empowerment through CBOs in Jordan is highly promoted by the government – here’s an example of a recent event where organizations like this one were recognized publicly.

During the course of the trip, I also had an opportunity to become friends and have many conversations with Mrs. M, whose husband plays an important role in the CBO we were working with on that build.  She lives next door to the guesthouse where we stayed and has a good command of English, enabling us to have many in depth discussions.  I learned more about her daily life and quickly realized that despite our differences, she was describing a life which really was not that different from my own.  Mrs M normally wears a niqab and at one point when we were in her home, she took it off to show me her face and let me try it out. Um….it’s pretty hot under there, whew!

Once we became comfortable with each other, our conversations became more personal. When I posed question “why do you dress this way”, she immediately smiled and said, in an astonished tone, “why wouldn’t I??”.  She shared with me that she has covered her head since she was 15.  Because SHE wants to, it is 100% her choice.  She is proud of the way she lives her life and by choosing to cover herself, she is able to define how she interacts with others.  Her exact words? 

“I am golden.  I choose who is allowed to see me and who is not. It is my decision.  It is my special gift and power.” 

Wow, perfect.  It led to a conversation about self-expression and the recognition that we were truly seeing each other – despite her external coverings and my own less visible barriers.  To her, it was so clear.  You don’t need to express yourself through materialistic or ostentatious displays. Just be true yourself.  Her second lesson to me?  “You know me because I speak with my eyes.”

This conversation took place more than 2 years ago, but it still rings true.  For everyone.  If you want to honestly know someone, you only need to look into their eyes to see their heart.  Tell me you can’t see Mrs. S’s joy!

As tourists, it was totally fine to not cover our heads during our time in Jordan – but eventually, you realize that you “stick out less” if you give it a try.  So, on the last day of the trip, inspired by a parting gift given to me by Mrs. M, I did just that at dinner.  And the hotel staff, who had seen me in my usual pony-tailed state for days prior to the conclusion of our trip, all stopped and stared when I got out of the elevator.  Oh no!  I was immediately self conscious – did I offend them all?  Is this the worst idea ever??  I started to apologize only to discover quite the opposite.  They broke out in huge grins and sheepishly replied “beautiful…”. 

Let that sink in for a bit.  Hair free, looking my “normal” – no comment or even a sideways glance.  Wrap it all up – and every head turned.  Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  I am golden.  I choose who gets to see me. 

We are all going to become experts at speaking with our eyes in the post-COVID new normal. I’m glad I got off to a good start with a great teacher.

To learn more about the work of Habitat for Humanity in Jordan, please click here. Global Village teams have been suspended in 2020 but families are still in need. If you are able, you can make a financial donation in support of this work using this link (scroll down to designate your donation to Jordan). Your kindness and generosity are most appreciated!

All Hands and Hearts in Mozambique (2020 Quarantine Edition)

In January 2020, you know – “the time before” – I participated in a project building two primary schools in Mozambique with All Hands and Hearts.  It already seems so long ago!  Why Mozambique, you ask?  Well….let me tell you the story.

On March 15, 2019, Tropical Cyclone Idai slammed into central Mozambique as a Category 3 storm. After lingering in the Mozambique channel for six days, Idai made landfall near Beira, Mozambique, and tracked inland towards Malawi and Zimbabwe. The storm brought severe wind and flooding and caused extensive damage to homes, schools, health facilities, and infrastructure, impacting nearly 3 million people.

As with most natural disasters, the media spotlight faded relatively quickly.  Attention shifted to other current events and compassion fatigue set in, reducing overall support for recovery of these communities (here’s an interesting article that talks about this phenomenon).  However, survivors were still living in dire circumstances.  All Hands and Hearts decided to answer the call. 

Two primary schools in rural communities in the Nhamatanda District of Sofala Province, Mozambique which had not yet received governmental aid were identified as potential high-impact projects.  Each school served 400-600 students in grades 1-7 before the storm.  Both were completely destroyed.  A plan was formed whereby volunteers from around the world would work with local masons at each school site to construct 4 cyclone-resilient classrooms, a teachers office, and a permanent, hygienic lavatory facility.

I was excited to arrive in Mozambique (my first time!) and start working on this project.  Everything was new and, well, I loved it!  It’s impossible to capture the spirit in words but trust me – it was an experience I will never forget.  I worked for a few days building roof-trusses at our pre-fabrication site.

Then I headed out to the Julius Neyere Primary School.  Part of the joy of this site was the ~45 minute commute each day through the countryside.  We witnessed many scenes of daily life and got the warmest welcomes!

Before one of our workdays, it had rained all night.  As we drove to work, we passed by many flooded houses – just from a few hours of “regular” rain.  This gave us a somber hint at what things may have been like in this area during a cyclone.

Work over the time I was on project was to (literally) raise the roof.  The first trusses were set but it was time to install those hip and incline trusses that we had been constructing in pre-fabrication.


We worked through unbearable heat and then several days of rain, but we got it done!

And then, on the day before I had to leave, the metal sheeting started going up, woohoo!

In addition to the primary classroom buildings, we also spent some time constructing a temporary learning center for the students to use until the completed buildings were ready.  While I was on the project, students were on their winter break but they were due back in just a few days!  Here’s how we set them up for continuous learning.

An amazing part of this project was how closely it was tied to the community.  This isn’t just an opportunity for outsiders to come in and feel good about themselves.  Local masons were hired and played a major role in the success of this build.  As guests in their community, we as volunteers provided labor, technical advice, and funding but we always deferred to the needs of the community.  We spent a lot of time getting to know the people on our worksite and, in turn, they were eager to know us and learn – English lessons happened often!

I enjoyed getting to know these local workers – they were all fun, friendly, hard-working, open and eager.

One of the senior masons, Albano, shared with us his story.

Albano lives close to the Julius Neyere Primary School with his wife, 3 children and 1 granddaughter.  He also has 3 married daughters who live with their families nearby.  On the night of the storm, he was visiting his extended family about an hour away from his home.  The storm prevented him from returning home that night and when he was finally able to venture outside around 4am, Albano discovered that many of the surrounding homes were destroyed.

He immediately started for home to reunite with his family and ensure they were safe.  The mini bus he boarded only made it about 15 minutes before severe flooding halted their journey.  Albano began walking the 15 kilometers to Nhamatanda, wading through water which was a times nearly 1.5 meters high.  In Nhamatanda, he was able to catch a motor taxi to Metuchira.  When he arrived, he found that the flooding was less severe than the area where he had come from, but nearly everything in town was destroyed, including his house.  Strong winds had ripped away the roofs of many homes.  And since most homes are constructed from sticks, bamboo and mud, they had simply washed away in the heavy rains.  Everything in the town was destroyed, including his own house. 

Albano found his family sheltering at the local community leader’s home. Not wanting to further impose, he went out and gathered whatever he could find – sticks, scattered metal, and nails – in order to build a temporary structure for his family. He dug holes for the sticks, and nailed on metal roofing sheets as walls and a roof. His family is living here until he is able to rebuild his permanent home.

For the three days after the storm food was very scarce, but Albano had two bags of corn from his family visit. After 3 days, the distribution of food by NGOs began in the village, including a bag of rice every 15 days. As time went on people began to work to regain normalcy, cleaning up debris, tending the fields, and rebuilding homes.

Albano saves the money he earns as a mason in order to buy bricks and roofing sheets with a goal of building a new house. He not only works tirelessly each day, but always has a smile. He loves meeting people from all over the world and sharing stories so that they can learn about each other.  He is proud to use the skills he has learned from his time building the Julius school, in order to build his own home and help others to do the same. ❤️

Unfortunately, with just a few weeks left to go before these schools were scheduled for completion, it became necessary to recall all volunteers and suspend the collaboration due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  While disappointing, safety always is paramount and I’m still proud to have contributed and made a difference in this community.  The local masons, true to form, have been working hard and today the schools are nearly complete.  It’s just a matter of time before 600 students per day get the chance to continue their quest for knowledge in these buildings.

There is still a great need in the communities in Sofala province.  If you are able, please consider a donation to support ongoing work in this area using this link.  Every dollar makes a difference. 

* This post contains information and photos provided by multiple staff members of All Hands and Hearts Volunteers – Smart Response.  Their support and willingness to share is much appreciated!

Public Art for Better Space (2020 Quarantine Edition)

Many visitors arrive in Hanoi excited to check out the Ceramic Mosaic Mural which was recognized in 2010 by Guinness World Records as the largest ceramic mural in the world at that time.  Yes, it’s a great tour stop and one could spend hours strolling, inspecting, and photographing this 4 mile work of art.  But I’m never one to focus my time on the “popular” spots!  I took this opportunity to explore a lesser known but (to me) more beautiful work of art…and I’m glad I did.

The Vietnam-Korea Joint Project Public Art for Better Space (NGHE THUAT) Project was initiated as an art exchange project to celebrate 25 years of friendship between Vietnam and South Korea. 

The murals are located along a ~200m stretch of Phùng Hung Street under the railway which leads to the Long Bien Bridge.  There are 19 paintings designed to celebrate the culture and spirit of 1000 years of history in Hanoi.  But this is not just a historical exhibit.  The murals include interactive and 3D paintings which delight visitors and invite them to become a part of the art.  Some are truly incredible!

Some depict scenes of daily life in Old Hanoi…

The Master Caligrapher at Work usually draws quite a crowd!

Many of the murals invite viewers to interact and become a part of the scene.

The murals are not limited to just paintings – they are multimedia art.

This beautiful 3D cutout mural uses a technique called trompe-l’oeil.

And of course, the railway art project would not be complete without a depiction of the bridge to which it leads!

Photos don’t really do it justice, but I really enjoyed this experience. My only regret is not spending more time “interacting” with the murals!  Add it to the list for next time. 🙂

Kawazu Sakura Matsuri (2020 Quarantine Edition)

We’re stuck inside, travel (and other life) restrictions in full swing.  But our minds are still free.  And there are so many things we can learn, enjoy, and discover from the wonders of our own internet-filled living rooms.  So, where should we begin? 

I’ve been fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel quite a bit over the past ~decade.  I actually started this blog hoping to share and process some of those experiences but to be honest, I’m usually too busy enjoying the trip to take the time to sit down and capture it in words!  And when I do, it takes me forever because I agonize over making it perfect – as any self-respecting, detail-oriented scientist would. 🙂 Ahhhh…luckily, I’ve suddenly found myself with a lot of time at home on my hands.  It still won’t be perfect, but at least it’ll occupy a few minutes of my time.  And maybe it’ll be a welcome and positive distraction for you, too.

Instead of debating the perfect opening post, I’m just going with the one that calls me in the moment.  Growing up near Washington DC meant that The Cherry Blossom Festival was always such a big deal.  If you’ve never witnessed first hand the pink and white beauty reflecting in the Tidal Basin, you should really add it to your bucket list! I can’t remember the last time I went, though, because the number of tourists usually outnumbers even the number of blossoms.  That is, if you are lucky enough to catch a peek before rain, snow, wind or any number of other natural “disasters” wipes the blooms off the trees and leaves puddles of pink on the ground.  If I lived within walking distance, this would definitely be the year to try since tourism is limited.  Anybody from DC reading this?  Have you seen them this year? ❤️

In early March of 2015, I went to another cherry blossom festival – the Kawazu Sakurai Matsuri on the Izu Peninsula in Japan.  Cherry trees in Kawazu are some of the earliest and slowest blooming in eastern Japan, providing the more than 1 million annual visitors with a wonderful welcome to spring.

Reaching Kawazu is a relatively easy by train and once you are there, you notice not just the beauty but also the street festival atmosphere during this time of year. 

Families come to enjoy good weather and partake in shows, games and of course food!

Luckily for me, not everything was made of fish…hahahaha.

If you want to learn more about this festival, here’s a great summary.

This trip was for me, at the time, a welcome break from the bustle of busy Tokyo (and life in general!).  Today, it brings back fond memories of a wonderful trip with friends and colleagues.  If you find yourself in Japan, make your way to Kawazu and enjoy!

So, you will never be rich?

Here’s how it happened, on the 10 minute Uber ride from the hotel to the airport.

Kenneth picked me up and as usual when I take an Uber, we struck up some conversation.  Why waste 10 minutes in a foreign country in silence rather than learning something?

We exchanged pleasantries and I told him I had been in South Africa only 2 nights, but had arrived after spending 3 weeks in Mozambique.  He was intrigued – because why would you spend 3 weeks in Mozambique?  I explained that I was volunteering with All Hands and Hearts building schools in rural areas which were destroyed in the cyclone last year.  He asked me why I would take such work.  I said I don’t get paid, I quit my “regular” job and now travel and volunteer because I enjoy helping others.

Then the thoughtful pause…

“So, you will never be rich?”

“No.  Well, maybe.  I don’t know.  I feel rich in my heart.”

This prompted an amazing conversation about how we view possessions vs. experiences.  How we can define “rich” in so many ways.  How society places value on things when that may not actually be the be-all end-all goal. How people are really just people no matter their life circumstances – we have more in common than we realize. He shared words of wisdom passed down from his father. I did too. We enjoyed a special moment.

Yes, it this happened over only 5 minutes and it was with an Uber driver that I will never meet again.  But these are the conversations that color our perspective and cause us to reflect, become better people, appreciate things in a  way which we might not otherwise. We are not so different. Who’s to say who is born into privilege vs poverty. It’s not what we were given, it’s what we make of it.

So I can ask you – are you rich?  Life is too short, don’t miss out on all that it has to offer.