Protests, Elections, SMS

Demonstrators are rioting outside my office window. Young and old from various Islamic organizations waving ‘Pray for Gaza’ signs and Palestinian flags shouting “Allahu Akbar” (God is great) are demanding the UN take action against Israeli attacks in Gaza. We’re told not to go outside and to hide our badges if we do.

It’s dusk, and my coworkers gather at a cubicle to feast on rice, tempeh and tofu wrapped in lotus leaves to break the daily Ramadan fast amid the vexatious fusion of wailing from a nearby mosque and chanting from the protestors.

Uncertainty looms in the air; since last Wednesday’s election, the city has been on edge awaiting the official announcement of whether Jokowi or Prabowo will be president for the next 5, potentially 10, years. Although early counts put Jokowi ahead, the margin was small- and both candidates claimed victory. With the decision still in limbo, the mood here feels like the calm before a storm.

Most of the UN is rooting for Jokowi, Jakarta’s governor running on an anti-corruption platform and considered a ‘people’s leader’. Prabowo, on the other hand, is a former military general with a dubious record, having been expelled from the army for ordering the kidnapping of pro-democracy activists in 1998 and recently courting big bureaucrats and hard-line Islamist extremists, most notably the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI)- a terrorist group aiming to implement Shari’ah law through violent attacks on religious minorities and hate speech condemning religious freedom.

Almost all Indonesians are Muslim, but most are moderate. Though I do cover up here more than in other places, I was relieved to find I’m not harassed or oogled for wearing long shorts, a thick-strapped tank top or T-shirt. This is no Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia; the Constitution does allow for freedom of religion and society is fairly liberal.

But many say they feel radicalism is heightening, and reports of discrimination and attacks against religious minorities have increased. Last month saw a few violent attacks from radicals on Christian prayer services. My Christian coworker said she has felt increasingly marginalized, and that many of her former Christian classmates were pressured to convert to Islam, for example by monopolistic apartment owners in small communities who will only board Muslims. Since Prabowo is courting and supported by Islamist radicals, she is understandably very worried about him possibly snagging the crown.

Prabowo shares many qualities of history’s finest dictators: a military history plagued by allegations of human rights abuses, a campaign inciting nationalism by calling for the expulsion of foreign influences (including democracy, which he calls a Western construct) in favor of authoritarianism, and appealing to the poor by promising free social services. From what I’ve read and observed, it seems the writing is on the wall for Prabowo as a future dictator: Get this guy in the office and he’ll consolidate power and change the Constitution so he can rule for a longg time.

But as we await the results, the pro-Palestinian protests are a distraction. The UN so far has only called for a cease-fire, and I’m not sure what the protestors expect the UN to do given it has yet to take a stance on the conflict.

I was in the Holy Land just 2 months ago- Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee in Israel, and Bethlehem and Ramallah in Palestine.

First stop was Jerusalem- where I was thrilled to walk in Jesus’ footsteps but disappointed by how commercial and noisy the place is (it still functions as a modern city with lots of bustling markets and commotion). Here, I get to talking with a guy whose grandmother survived Auschwitz and whose anger pours from his bulging eyes and clenched teeth as he swears Jews will never again be bullied. I tell him I agree Jews need a physical place to live since age-old persecution against them is largely due to their being a nation without a state, and he insists upon giving me a sweatshirt sporting his Jewish Academy logo.

Israeli army training outside Yad Vashem memorial
Israeli army training outside Yad Vashem memorial

Two Palestinian classmates from Sciences Po who became my good friends suggested I visit their friends from home. So, I go to the central bus station in Jerusalem and ask for a ticket to Ramallah.

Everyone around me freezes and stares at me in shock.

<(HORRIFIED GASPS)>  She said WHAT!? Ticket to WHERE!?

One very concerned older woman with a hunched back surreptitiously steers me aside and in a hushed voice with eyes shifting left and right warns me of the possibility of rape, theft and general danger of crossing into Ramallah. “You must have an exact plan if you go there,” she says, finger wagging in my face. “You can’t just show up.”

No one can tell me where to buy a ticket, so I wander to a coffee shop where I prod a waiter who reluctantly divulges the big secret: I could take a bus from Damascus Gate, the Arab area, to cross into Palestine.

I’m on my guard as I mount the bus, clutching my belongings and expecting the worst, but ease into the laid-back atmosphere on board and even eye a smiling American couple among the passengers. Everything is cool. I was going to be fine.

We arrive to Ramallah in about an hour and some jolly non-English speaking Palestinian guys from the bus with whom I communicated in hand motions (and were amazed to discover I was from New York…they understood that much) instruct a taxi to take me to my friend’s house, where she meets me looking like a hot mess.

“You ready to party?” she asks through the window as the taxi screeches to a halt. She leads me up to the stunning apartment of her friend whose dad is a Palestinian political leader imprisoned for the past 12 years on charges of anti-Israeli conspiracy.

‘HAAYYYYYYO’ everyone says as I walk in the door to a big, smiling crowd. We sit around talking, jamming, cheersing. They ask me about what it’s like on the other side since they’re either not allowed or need a permit, and all eyes are on me…. then this happened:

“Wait, is that an Israeli academy sweatshirt?” one girls asks.

Whoa. Totally forgot I was still wearing this. I’m in the house of an imprisoned Palestinian leader with an Israeli academy shirt on. She asks me if I’m pro-Israeli, and I say I’m neutral then change. Good idea anyway since we were about to hit some fancy clubs.


All is well and I instantly feel part of this crew of life-loving 20-somethings, confidently rolling with them to a string of pulsating clubs throughout the night, one in which I meet a nice gentleman my age who offers to show me around the next day. I take him up on the offer.


We meet his friend and cruise around the West Bank, windows down and radio blaring. I search for the shack-like settlements I see broadcast on TV and see none, only miles of sandy hills sliced by a towering, Israeli-built wall marking the border divide. I ask where the poverty is and they say the media hypes it up, that they both have good salaries, that there are jobs, that the conflict doesn’t affect them much. We tour Bethlehem, lunch on mezze, and share stories until it’s time I head back to Israel.

The mood suddenly switches as we approach the border, where we pass Israeli soldiers with machine guns firing what look like rubber bullets at a group of Palestinian youth. We turn off the radio and slow down a bit so I can snatch a photo then carry on- too risky to hang around.


At the checkpoint, people queue before 5 layers of iron gates, elaborate scanning machines and interviews with border patrol officers, who act condescendingly toward many commuters. People seem anxious, subservient to the officers, fidgety under the intense security. On the other side, I meet an American grad student volunteering in Ramallah and tell him I didn’t see what I was expecting to; I didn’t see much poverty or pain.



“Are you serious? People here are starving. People here have lost their land. They’re under occupation. They have random security checks in their homes and on their way to work and school. Look at how they’re humiliated just at this checkpoint,” he says.

We talk race and religion, the emergence of the Israeli state, the role of Jordan, the spillover to Lebanon, and the continual fighting. I probably learn more from this hour bus ride than any history class yet.

It was incredible to see both sides of the conflict, and I’m fortunate I could do so. And now I have a much better understanding of what these Indonesians outside my window are calling for.

Other than working and trying to keep up with politics, I’m trying to shake a nasty parasite. I’ve lacked my usual pep and felt fatigued the past few weeks, and hoping my system recovers soon….it should considering the strength of the anti-protazoa meds made me feel worse than the bug itself.

The UN interns traveled to the funky artsy town of Yogyakarta this past weekend, where we visited Hindu & Buddhist temples, watched the sunrise over a misty valley beneath a towering volcano, and saw a ballet enacting the (incredibly sexist) famous Hindu story of Ramayana with the golden Prambanan temple shimmering in the background against the starry sky.

Michelle, my Nigerian/Candadian friend mentioned in an earlier post, is the star of the bunch. This girl needs her own comedy gig, though she rejects the idea since she says she’s priming for politics. Her one-liners are hysterical, and we all spent the majority of the weekend belly laughing at her words of wisdom we dub SMS- Shit Michelle Says. Some samples:

Michelle enthralling the masses with her words of wisdom

“Dude that’s seriously your default? You’re not going to get a man with that shit. You need to put a sexy picture and leave your ID in your work bag. Men are gonna think you work a lot. They pretend they like that but dude nobody does.”

“Facebook- that shit’s boring. I never go on. It’s too much for me…people sharing their lives and laughing and crying and shit. I don’t care. I have my own shit to deal with. That’s the thing with instagram- you don’t have to talk to anyone, just look at pictures. I don’t think I follow anyone but I have a nice picture on there so people follow me.”

“Look at that child and look at Beyonce. That girl took everything on Jay Z’s face.”

“Couple selfies? That’s what the guy does to show the main chick he doesn’t have a side chick.”

“I want to go back to Africa where life is easy.”

(while climbing a temple): “I’ve never been in heat like this.
me: Michelle you’re from Nigeria.
M: I know, but I’m always in cars.
I can’t make it. I think I’m gonna have a heart attack.
me: Michelle you can do it. Look at your legs, you have muscle.
M: It’s fat. There’s a difference.”

“You’re getting your period too? You know that shit’s contagious? But maybe it’s the food I ate today. I’m also on birth control but I feel like a baby’s gonna pop out of my uterus.
(Amritha): I don’t think it works like that.
M: Oh girl it does. It happened once.”

M: “You know you attract them with that stuff?
(Dinah): It’s repellant.
M: Yeah, but it’s shiny. So they come.”

“Whenever I go to America I feel smart because all people know is Housewives of Atlanta and shit like that.”

M: “There’s so many people here.
(Amritha): Yeah, white people.
M: Still, they’re people.”

me: “You have a boyfriend?
M: Yeah. I don’t know what he does in Nigeria but he puts money in my account every now and then so it’s OK with me. I had some broke ones before and they didn’t do much for me. I also had some young ones but they literally affected my IQ. My boyfriend is not young or good looking but that’s not what I was looking for. Girl I’m over that shit. It’s about what they can do for you.”

(on ex boyfriends): “Listen I don’t go back to my vomit, and you are my vomit. I dumped you for a reason. If it were the other way around, then I’d be like ‘oh hii.’ But it’s not.”

(on traditional medicine): “When you grow up with that shit you get immune to it. So you’re better off just popping a pain killer.”

(on Jakarta’s pollution): “It’s actually good if your skin peels because it means you’re reacting well to the environment. People pay to get peels…Beyonce and everyone. So actually you’re getting a natural skin peel.”

(on sugardaddys): “Girl you need to roll with a Nigerian or an Arab. They give you money just for lookin’ good. Take him to the mall, buy what you want and never call him again. Or tell him to send you money to visit, and don’t go. I’ve done it plenty of times.”

That’s a wrap. Happy work week.

Labor Abuse and the Importance of Place

I finally visited a garment factory- something I’ve been trying to achieve for more than a year. I’ve attempted to get in as a journalist, a student, even an interested tourist/global citizen. All efforts failed.

So this was truly cool. I entered as a representative for the ILO to interview the supervisor about paying for workers’ health coverage as mandated under a new government policy, and then separately to ask workers their candid thoughts on the health plan.

It feels strange to say this, but conditions at the factory (which produces for Nike and adidas) didn’t seem that bad. Lighting- though the kind of nauseating neon lamps used in malls- was adequate, noise not too loud, working space decent, chairs with backrests.

garment workers inside a nike/adidas production factory

But I’m told this is rare, that in other factories heat is unbearable, textile dust permeates the air, women stand and receive meager breaks, even when pregnant.

On one hand, workers I’ve interviewed have said garment factories cause countries to lose a generation. Thousands of young women are not learning transferrable, quality skills such as English or accounting or have intellectual stimulation. Instead they handle assembly lines, repeating the same motion daily. This results in an overall loss to the country’s wellbeing- Exploiting human capital or resources for export does not help a country’s sustainability.

However, factories employ people; workers earn salaries. Work is work; there’s always going to be some sort of hardship by definition. Most of the global workforce sits  in one position for hours, backs hunched and eyes strained on a screen. Not everyone can have amazing jobs, and to believe so seems as idealistic as thinking everyone can be rich, since jobs and income go hand-in-hand. And for better or worse, manual labor is necessary to produce the basics people need- farmers for food, textile workers for clothing and construction workers for shelter.

So, these jobs are going to exist. But what can be done is at least ensure workers are safe and healthy. <<Enter NGOs, journalists, the ILO>>

While Westerners tend to conceptualize these things as happening ‘over there’ and irrelevant (even though much of what we consume originates from such sources) labor abuse is very real everywhere- even in developed countries. Just a few months ago, I was on the flip side of labor inspection, learning a first person lesson on exploitation while living in France. To defray costs while studying abroad and because my visa would not allow other work, I planned to work as an au pair. A seemingly decent Parisian mother contacted me via a facebook group and we made an arrangement two months before my arrival that I would care for her kids 20 hours per week for $200/month and housing, which is difficult to find in Paris for one semester, let alone expensive. I love working with kids and have lots of great experience, knew I could handle a part-time gig, and felt assured in committing to Paris as I knew I had housing and a way to manage the expense.

But what I would soon find in a cruel twist of events is how horrible Parisians can really be. Truly. Horrible.

Upon my arrival, the mother- a very wealthy attorney and native Parisian married to another attorney (she told me she likes to fight and likes fighters and needs conflict in her life)- put me in a small room in her apartment instead of the studio we had agreed upon, saying she would move me there in a few days. The next morning she woke me at 6am confrontationally declaring (in front of her kids) she decided to rent out the studio and reduce my salary, since she could find cheaper labor. Utter shock. Her behavior as a spoilt Parisian socialite insensitive to the fact that I just arrived from across the ocean to a situation totally different than agreed upon made this week hell- and the bizarreness only spiraled. On top of my 7 demanding classes, I began a fervent search for new apartments or new au pair situations- anything I could find- and soon found she had moved my belongings into the bedroom of her 3 little boys, saying I was to sleep on a floormat there and watch her kids in exchange for a roof (without pay). ‘And don’t try anything funny with me,’ she said. ‘I know plenty of professors at Sciences Po,’ adding that if I tried to report her, she would claim that I injured her.

I peered into her naive beady eyes sheltered from any reality outside Paris and pitied her incapacity to treat people not as ‘help’ but as people. I told her off. I was stern. Asked who raised her, said her actions were illegal and abhorrent, that at least one of us can leave this still knowing we were a good person, and thanked her for serving as a reminder of how I never want to be. And I left, thinking it’s true money certainly cannot buy class.

Photo on 2014-01-22 at 19.39
posing with the devil’s children. poor kids

I stayed with a classmate (Moroccan not French..important distinction), and searched for housing, using Google translate on the all-French websites. I found an older woman living between Brussels and Paris with her diplomat husband seeking someone to look after her apartment while she was away in exchange for housing. Easy enough.

We met at her beautiful place and she told me she would hire me but first wanted to ‘see how I cleaned’. I gutted her daughter’s apartment that had been left in an absolute pig stye for 9 hours- bleaching, dusting, vacuuming- with a 15 minute break. I did this because I assumed I would be paid (surely any rational person would pay, right?). She seemed like a decent person, we talked a good deal and I ironically told her of my aspirations to work for the UN ILO out of my passion for labor rights.

But I was never hired- and never paid. She spent 5 euro on a fancy stamp to send a letter stating she didn’t need help anymore, thereafter ignoring my requests to be paid for my hard labor.

Eager to finally settle, I moved in with a nice family whose matriarch had also contacted me via the Paris au pair facebook group. She was respectful and I drafted an official agreement letter before starting. Things went well for a month and I enjoyed tutoring the kid in English- until the mom started pushing for more hours and less pay, saying she could pay someone else less, that I ‘have a bedroom here and need to do more for it.’ When I reminded her that I was working the exact schedule we had agreed to, she said, huffing, ‘And not a minute more’. Her husband had also acted a bit flirty toward me on a couple of occasions.

Packed my bag and moved, finally to my own place for the last month found via a friend.

I’m fortunate. I had recourses to fall back on- savings, connections. But I thought about those who do not. What would an uneducated Philipina girl far from home with broken English and no cash or connections do in these circumstances?

Determined to hold these power-hungry, exploitative people responsible- I reached out to a few labor attorneys, my US and French universities, the US Embassy. But nothing came of it. One lawyer said two of the families had indeed violated French human rights law and could be severely punished, but ultimately the steep fees to file claims were not worth the fight, especially while I was in exams and leaving in a couple of months. I could do nothing. I abhor feeling helpless. But I was now the powerless immigrant with little recourse to fight for my rights at the whim of selfish employers.

Living in France also made me realize the importance of social workers, especially for migrant workers. I lacked but desperately needed someone to help translate documents- everything from class registration, applying for a bank account, cell phone, metro card and health insurance plan were extremely onerous. Customer service (a foreign concept in France) for these things either does not exist or is not in English (with Paris being an international city and most of the world speaking English I thought I would be fine– wrong). I could not open a bank account without first having an au pair sponsor (the first mother refused), and could not get a cell phone plan or metro card without the bank account. I was over charged a few hundred euros from different transactions I did not understand and wasted much time protesting in vain through the snailish, stuffy French bureaucratic system.

I felt alone, frustrated at the inability to do what are normally basic things, too annoying to ask a friend for help with translating documents or apartment hunting. No one likes to be bothered with negativity so I stuffed this struggle and carried on, trying to study and enjoy the occasional picnic or coffee with friends that never quite left the right taste in my mouth.

It was, quite honestly, exhausting. A battle to retain my positive nature. And I can see why Paris churns its citizens into arguably the world’s biggest whiners. It is negative- but it’s fact, not opinion. It happened. And I think it’s important to share.

Add all this to the everyday interaction with Parisians. Except for a couple of lovely girls (actually one was half Spanish), Parisians I encountered often acted fussy and curt, impersonal and instigatory, racist and whiney- and shockingly inhospitable. I’ve tried to figure out why, why the people of a culture with such beautiful art are so unpleasant. Perhaps they are angry out of hunger since they eat so little; that’s all I can come up with. But the intentional cigarette smoke in my face, purposeful shoves and sneers from adults in the metro, waiters shoving food or not serving me if I didn’t first say ‘bonjour’, repeated instructions to learn French (I did take a class), dismissal from the metro guys since I asked directions in English, professors who did not hold office hours, and repeated demands from taxi drivers to stop for coffee……sigh. People asked me why I did not like Paris– well that’s why.

This guy explains it all quite well (hilarious Parisian comedian with a famous show mocking Parisians):

But it also has to do with a person’s relationship to place. A couple of my friends love Paris. It depends on what inspires you. I went for the academics- Sciences Po is very prestigious- and because it would be fun, enjoyable, not too much culture shock (so I thought). But I also knew it wasn’t really my place.

The developing world- Eastern Europe, Latin America (mostly Central), Southeast Asia- inspires me. New York City inspires me. Dynamic places where entrepreneurship is booming and markets unsaturated. Where ideas are flowering and investment flowing. Places with more pressing human rights abuses, more issues to expose and identities more formative. Places where I have more purchasing power- where I can hire a maid and treat her nicely rather than be one myself. Indonesia offers this now and I love it. But Paris was quite the opposite. And despite living in some ‘wild’ places, I never experienced a smidget of the difficulties of Paris living. In, say, Cambodia people smile on the street, are humble and hardworking, eager to practice English. Despite all they have been through, they do not complain, rather are forward thinking. Acquiring a cell phone or bank account is effortless. It was like a playground with so many stories to share and ventures to help create. I have a few French friends living in Cambodia and Indonesia. We get along great and they feel the same as I: ‘Why do you think we live here and not there?’ they say.

We should all be in places that inspire us, whose energy speaks to us.

I’ll leave on an anecdote. Last weekend I visited an Italian friend and classmate from Sciences Po currently interning for a startup in Malaysia. We traveled with a group of grad school summer interns to Langkawi, a gorgeous tropical island. At a lovely dinner on the beach one night, the French guy in the group after his meal of about 5 French fries snapped his fingers loudly and unabashedly yelled for our Malaysian waiter.

“Are you seriously snapping?” I ask.
“What, it’s bad?” French guy says.
“Yes; it’s a very bad French habit,” says a French girl in the group (note: from Southern France = much nicer).
“One of many,” I add.
The French guy’s cheeks redden, he turns to me and so eloquently says “F- you.”
“Oh, the French,” says the group’s Dutch guy. “Didn’t think I’d have to deal with this in Asia.”

Place matters.

Smooth Sailing

Life is pretty cool. I’ve developed my routine here already: wake up at 8, walk to the neighborhood coconut stand for a morning coconut water, walk to work, work (with lunch at noon with fellow part of the day), walk to the gym and workout, walk to a local restaurant for dinner, tool around for an hour or two browsing the net or writing, sleep at about 1.

It’s the 9-5 office life but I like it because I am excited to be working with the UN, and in material of my genuine interest. If I didn’t like it, I think there’d be a big problem.

On weekends, we interns venture out of Jakarta for some adventure, solace in the quiet and air that doesn’t make us wheeze. Last weekend, we went to Bandung, where we visited a volcano boasting a lake at the top inside the crater with sea-foam green, smoking water. A sulfuric smell permeated the air and we proceeded to bathe in the salubrious pool, relishing the tingling of our skin beneath the fizzing pebbles and shells. A facewash I use at home contains volcanic sulfur….obviously far more exciting to experience the real thing (a theme in developing countries where less saturated markets and more access to sources of production makes for more genuine experience).

This past weekend I traveled to Bogor and Puncak, and visited botanical gardens and tea plantations. On the train, I get to talking with the guy sitting next to me and find he’s a Pakistani refugee living at a center in Bogor awaiting his papers from UNHCR to settle in Australia. He’s been here 9 months but says refugees aren’t supposed to work because if UNHCR finds out they’ll close the case. Many end up working informally to have some sort of income, but in his case, family and friends wire money from Pakistan.

Saturday night, a UNDP supervisor (Gina) who is kind of a legend invited the interns out for a night of clubbing. Gina’s friend was DJ’ing at this club, whose 3 levels, model show and bottle service made for an intense and very fun night, where Sarah and I danced the night away.

Gina and I actually met in Hanoi by complete chance (though she says nothing is chance). I was leaving the Temple of Literature searching for a map when I saw a girl standing on the corner studying – a city map! “Hey! Can I look on with you?” Once set with directions to the next destination (which happened to be the unfortunate Ho Chi Minh museum), I hopped a moto ready to speed off when for some reason I felt compelled to ask the moto driver to stop as I passed Gina to ask where she was from:

“Indonesia? Really? I’m moving there next week to intern for the UN in Jakarta!”

“We’ll be in the same building. I work for the UN in Jakarta. Here’s my card; see you there.”

Really, what are the chances? Life never ceases to amaze me.

This past week was busy- the Indonesian government is formulating a social security and injury protection scheme for workers, and the ILO is heavily involved in its planning. We held a 2-day conference for which we invited ministers from other countries that have implemented social security for workers such as Japan, Malaysia and Korea. The Japanese representatives were the most friendly and I had to restrain myself from laughing at their eager and enthusiastic demeanour. They also gave us green tea flavored Kit Kat bars from Japan, which proves the Japanese are simply delightful.

What I found interesting at the conference- where workers, employers and government representatives were present- was sincerity not so often found at such events. Workers passionately vocalized their demand for more security, employers admitted attempts to avoid certain labor laws are all too common, and the government said it is carefully considering how the social security plan will be crafted since it will be expensive. “We don’t want to end up like Europe, which is in debt because of social services. People now live to be 85, and with all the people in Indonesia, that’s going to be expensive,” one minister said.

The extent to which the ILO works with the government is very surprising to me. I did not know how much the two worked together before I began the internship; I had always thought the UN was meant to be more independent to keep governments in check and create regulations independent of national sovereignty. Wrong. The government is a stakeholder in projects, and often helps implements them. The UN needs government approval, so needs to keep a friendly rapport. This makes it difficult for the UN to act in cases where the government is in violation or disagreement of its mission. Maybe this is why so many people present at an open invite UN meeting last week blasted the UN for its irrelevance. I myself was frustrated when I was told I should show the good and bad when writing features about working conditions or profiles of workers after visiting a garment factory, and thought back to writing on this topic with freedom as a journalist. It seems NGOs and (independent) newspapers are the entities with the most autonomy in this game. Still, if the UN didn’t do a lot what it does, who would?

Apparently, the UN is currently struggling a bit with redefining its role in Indonesia, which was recently deemed a middle-income country despite the stark income inequality and widespread, visible poverty. “What does the UN do in a middle income country?” one American student at our intern lunch asked, vexing over his salad. “And now donors will pull funding still so badly needed by many Indonesians.”

Our intern lunches are entertaining- A very mixed group from France, Nigeria, Canada, Italy, the US, India, Lithuania, Israel, Malaysia and Pakistan sharing our summer experiences together. The most insightful comment so far came from the hangry Nigerian/Canadian girl while impatiently awaiting her meal: “Girrrrl that’s why colonialism is messed up. Takin’ all those people and mixin’ them around, causin’ all these problems. Mmhmm, colonialism is bad.” Love this girl.

Tomorrow I’m lunching with the guy directing the Thai- based Triangle project in Indonesia to find out more about what it is doing. The aim is to eradicate exploitation of labor and forced labor in Asean, and I’m curious to know how given the herculean task. The US just downgraded Thailand on the human trafficking index, placing it in the same category as embarrassingly unstable countries such as Syria and North Korea and reflecting how pervasive the problem is in Asean.

Other than that, I’m on a good health kick. Joined a gym here last week, where I was greeted with a loud ‘HIIIIIII WELCOMEEE WHERE YA FROM!?!? from the instructor upon stepping into the first group class- called ‘Seduction’- where we learned pop dance moves to the song ‘Big Booty’ and I spent a moment pondering how I went from D1 Varsity athlete to this that I now considered my exercise. My landlady asked her masseuse to treat me weekly, where I pay $12 for a 2-hour massage session. And the morning coconut water, afternoon $1 fresh carrot/beet/apple juice and dinners of spinach, seaweed, tofu and mushrooms are all helping to make me feel pretty darn great 🙂

Bogor Botanical Garden:Image


tea plantations:Image



Jakarta Life

Writing from my new apartment- or ‘kost’ as they’re called here in Indonesia- which is actually more like a room. A nice room though…new, with a personal bathroom and study area, AC, wooden ceiling, tiled floors and most importantly, security guards. It only costs about $220 per month, and is a mere 2 to 3 minute walk from my office building, a divine gift from heaven considering the atrocious traffic here in Jakarta. One can make a wrong turn and need an hour to correct it by circling just one block, especially in rush hour. This of course makes for fresh, clean city air and remarkable respiratory health for locals.

Before I found the place- which involved a pretty painless process of walking around the neighborhood one afternoon knocking on doors with an Indonesian coworker- I stayed for a few days with the family of my Indonesian classmate from Paris whose mother works in the democracy, governance & anti-corruption unit for USAID. It was nice to have that comfort upon arrival, and I learned much about the current political climate here, including the July 9 presidential election (more on that to come).

The kost building is owned and managed by two young Indonesian-Chinese entrepreneurs whose families must be in the upper echelon here since they studied at private university in the US and buy and sell properties like candy. They’re cool and they’re Christian (a rarity here among the Muslim majority) and understand America and so we bond and they show me around. To. All. The. Malls.

Jakarta is plastic. Really, there are malls upon malls. It’s risen to a middle-income country (though the income inequality is absurdely stark…modern office buildings stand alongside dilapidated shacks), and luxury brands ubiquitous. It is an inside culture- exercising in gyms instead of parks. Eating in chain restaurants instead of sidewalk cafes. Shopping in malls instead of street markets. Using car taxis instead of cycling. It’s a respite from the hot air and pollution but it’s artificial and it’s suffocating. Malls mimic real life where strolling inside them is like strolling outside- hallways meant to look like streetways with their fake trees, lanterns, brick and even iron bridges. The nightlife, though, seems enticing and I am excited to explore it- lots of fancy sky bars. Only trouble is they overlook a city so polluted with a government so capable of building malls yet incapable of installing public transit.

The two landlords guzzle down drinks as I sip my green veggie juice, and when I compliment their young success, let down their guard. “It’s a lot of pressure, from our families. We can’t take a year to backpack or volunteer as many Americans or Europeans do. ” They’re right. Asians typically don’t that…not considered a productive use of time in a culture where familial pressure for business dominates over exploration and learning.

The people I’ve encountered here so far have been friendly and welcoming. They smile and say hello on the streets, are helpful and excited to meet foreigners. Except whatever jerk stole my camera and cash on the bus my first day. Yeah, except him.

It’s OK; the experience led me to meet a lovely friend. Sarah and I bonded during the mandatory UN security briefing held on the second day of our internship. Sarah was also robbed on her first day, on the train. Turns out getting screwed on day #1 was not all we had in common: She is the same age as I; studied in Paris; is eager; in the international development field on the grassroots side- and also struggling a bit with working in an office. “I just don’t think humans are supposed to live like that, much of their lives sitting in one spot. Why do we do this to ourselves,” she said during our first lunch break together. Instant connection.

It’s always reassuring to meet people with similar interests, and going to grad school and meeting expats while working abroad definitely helped in this journey of pursuing this line of work. A rarity at my college, where there was not even an international affairs major, it’s so nice to know there are others I can relate to- particularly girls- who face many of the same questions, decisions and experiences in this field.

The majority of my coworkers at the ILO are Indonesian, which is good to see since it’s their country. They are very intelligent, hardworking and friendly all at once, and it’s fascinating to learn about their projects- everything from hunger alleviation to better factory conditions, advancing small enterprises to scoring social protection for workers.

The ILO is working closely with the government to develop a social security and injury protection scheme for workers, and will present it in a conference this month. Such a plan is long overdue, my supervisor says; given the government heavily subsidizes gasoline (for the tax revenue cars provide) it should be able to provide insurance to workers. We visited the Ministry of Manpower and Transmigration today to organize the conference, for which I’m helping to prepare the program and speakers.

I’m also helping in the enterprise development department, looking at technical business guidelines given to restaurants, guesthouses and market vendors and simplifying them for these owners to understand. I’ll then create guidelines for small stores on how to start a business- how to market, access credit and build a model. I’ve never done this before and am relying on Google and what I’ve learned from classes so far for guidance. This ‘toolbox’ be piloted and monitored in Jakarta, and hopefully will have some impact.

^^(Just realized that sentence is very NGO-ish. In journalism terms: the guidelines will be handed out to small store owners in Jakarta for the first time, and ILO reps will poll the entrepreneurs to ask if they think the recommendations have helped them create businesses or improve sales for existing ones.)

The last project is writing op-eds linking the ILO conference in Geneva to predominant labor issues in Indonesia, the first being formalizing the informal economy (informal economy accounts for more than 60% of Indonesia’s labor force).

Other than that, I’m looking forward to getting out on the weekends. Indonesia is a big country of which seemingly 99% lies outside what’s dubbed The Big Durian, i.e. Jakarta (Durian is a notoriously foul smelling Southeast Asian fruit). Might hike a volcano with a fellow ILO intern my age from New York this weekend. And my good friend from Scotland will be living in Bali for July, which presents quite the perfect opportunity to visit 🙂



Long time no write. I created this blog last summer, 2013, to document my experience working as a journalist for the English newspaper of Nicaragua. But once I began pursuing a Master’s in the fall, I stopped writing, as my life was no longer as interesting and my daily routine rather mundane, thus my insights less informative. For the spring semester, I studied abroad in Paris, where I again neglected to write considering stories about my morning croissant, sitting around theorizing about international affairs and frustrations with Paris’ oh-so-charming citizens did not make for the most inspiring.

But now I’m back at it: interning for the UN ILO in Jakarta, Indonesia. The ILO- International Labor Organization- is a complex  UN branch with a technical mandate to address labor-related issues such as forced labor (from youth, migration, and trafficking), conditions in MNC (primarily garment) factories, working with governments to establish minimum wages (‘living’ wages, as they’re now called), and small business development, particularly for women.

It was halfway into my regular Wednesday night development economics class last October when the ILO epiphany hit me. We were discussing sustainable labor- specifically call centers in Nicaragua, on which I had previously reported. Is local employment for MNC good for development or not, and what are the alternatives? I argued nay, citing commonplace unhealthy working conditions and fleeting nature of the business. I realized that the issues on which I most liked to report in Cambodia and Nicaragua were all labor-related: conditions in garment factories, behind the scenes of call centers, youth employment, microfinance for women as a source of self assertion, women gaining access to loans and business plans through World Bank funded programs, massage as a means of employment for those blinded by landmines, beer factory workers on strike…  Yup, ILO.

It motivates me to think that slavery still exists. Burma is selling uncompensated fisherman to Thailand for free and forced labor. Domestic workers from Cambodia still travel to Malaysia in hopes they will find better work as domestic servants, oftentimes only to find they become abused and trapped after their passports are stolen by their bosses, who declare they must do their work in order to earn it back. Girls are still sold by their families into sex rings, and brothels exist the world over. It’s funny how much attention films like ’12 Years a Slave’ garnered, yet many still seem to forget that this is happening- now.

I do miss reporting. This week it really hit me that I am now on the other side of the policy system- that I am no longer writing about the programs but actually helping to design, implement and monitor them. During one meeting, a director called upon staff to write op-eds, saying it offers the ILO a chance to show its voice since  journalists write whatever they feel the story is instead of repeating the neatly packaged press kits presented at press conferences.

But I liked that. I remember writing a controversial story after attending a UN conference during which officials urged Cambodia to sign a migrant workers’ treaty. And so this is the story I wrote. But because it did not mimic the NGO lingo contained within the press kit, a UN representative fired back, saying the UN was not ‘pushing’ (as this looks bad for the organization). Whatever, I told the story.

Transitioning into policy work is certainly exciting. Although I love journalism- the learning that comes with working on so many stories, the quest for the truth and presentation of it in order to affect policy (or at least public perception), the daily diversity and engaging nature- it was time for a change. I have known for a while that this transition would come, and enjoyed reporting while I was in it. But there’s only so long one can remain objective when reporting about these issues without dirtying the hands. It’s great while you’re young and single and energetic and don’t care about money, but I also know the deadlines and time commitment and traveling are not the most conducive for the family life that I hope to have.  And while journalism abroad- immersed in these issues- is fascinating, in the US it is far less investigative with less access to the issues, and more a commercial gig.

Though very challenging, my program classes thus far have prepared me for the ILO: development economics, designing and implementing development projects, social entrepreneurship, impact evaluation, statistics, microfinance, corporate social responsibility, global hunger and trafficking.

Right now I am settling into Jakarta, moving into a new apartment and getting my bearings, but my mind is still preoccupied with this past month’s travels between when the semester ended in Paris and the internship began here. During this time, I used part of the generous grant GW awarded to visit Geneva, the French and Italian rivieras, Athens, Cyprus, Istanbul, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and Palestine, Egypt, Abu Dhabi, Sri Lanka, Burma, Vietnam…..and…..


As the dawn glowed upon the pink lotus waterlillies and verdant rice paddies punctuated by the occasional mountain and palm, I was the only passenger awake on the bus crossing from Saigon, carefully staring out the window as if the land lured me back and conjured all the old thoughts and feelings so incredibly familiar to my senses.

In Phnom Penh- which I left 2 years ago- I visited all of my old favorites. I went to the mass I regularly attended and the priest  who helped me along my journey, ate my favorite dishes at my old favorite restaurants (nothing since has compared to the Shop’s apple/beet/carrot/ginger juice or Nicoise salad) and enjoyed surprising the waiters I used to see daily. I walked by my old apartment,  worked out in my old gym, partied at my favorite club, shopped at my favorite clothes store and sat in my old desk at the newspaper. It was as if I had never left, and all was as it was.

Except it wasn’t. The old man who sold my morning coconut had moved, some of my old favorite bars or restaurants closed, new high rises and luxury buildings abounded, and most of my good friends gone. The air smelled of nostalgia and vivid memories whispered to me on every corner as I toured the city on motorbike, and what began as an exciting visit soon tinged with sadness. Sappy, yes. But I am a sucker for nostalgia, and hate how you can never truly go back, can never exactly replicate a feeling. Some things are gone forever, meant to be remembered only as a chapter.

My next posts will detail last month’s travels and settling into Jakarta. Stay tuned.

the ILO offices:



After 4 months in Latin America, I’m home. Coming home after being abroad is always so strange- everything is exactly how it was but a million times different. You are cognisant of the fact that you are a changed being with a world of completely different experience behind you that is now part of you, but that that world is at the moment irrelevant and distant and you slide back into the environment in front of you. I readjust to driving a car, eating nonparasitic vegetables, taking warm showers, cleanliness- but the world of experience behind me punctuates my reality and I flash back to hearing the pitter patter of horse hooves on stone streets, latino songs I’d hear everywhere, Spanish phrases, conversations still in my head, images of palm trees and lakes and scents of fruits and dirt still so real to me. It happened after Cambodia- very strange when your reality and routine completely changes…you wake up and it’s all gone and you sink or swim to adjust to your new place. I guess I’m describing culture shock.

A week before I came home, I was robbed at knifepoint in Granada, the colonial town where I was living in between my time living beachside. It was a bit after 9pm on a weekend near a block away from the center of town- not the most dangerous of circumstances. I was walking toward the Calzada, the main strip with all the restaurants, hotels, etc, and happened to be alone on the street in this one moment. Two guys approached me and as I saw them coming toward me I said “que quieres”- what do you want? One of the guys pulled a knife (which looked more like a paint chisel) out of his pants and I knew better than to resist…usually they just want the money, I thought (and thank God that did the trick). “Tomalo” I said- take it- and handed them my wallet and put my hands up to show I had nothing more. He took it and ran off.

I was lucky. Only lost $15. If I had had a bag with my laptop, credit cards, etc, they’d be gone. Or if he was a real sicko, he would’ve put the knife up to my skin and knick me as I have heard has happened to other girls. 

I was sad afterward that there are people who do this to people like me who are in the country to do good work and learn and contribute. But it happens, and I got over it. For every bad there is a good. A minute later, a couple on a motorbike came up the street and offered to give me a ride home. I stopped at a friend’s house and had dinner of guacamole, gallo pinto (rice and beans), enchiladas with chicken and plantain chips with her group of Nicaraguan friends she knows through her NGO. It was nice to see other Nicaraguans upset with what others in their country are doing to foreigners. Crime has increased a good amount recently in Granada…I met with the chief of tourism police and he said their resources are stretched- only 7 officers who stick to the main touristy spots for a town that is growing significantly and attracting more gringos.

I finished reporting on a whole range of topics in the weeks before I left. I am writing about a dump where people used to collect garbage to sell or recycle that now has a trash plant which does this job for them, leaving them out of “work” (interesting how a good thing can have a negative effect, at least short term). I went into the neighborhood right next to the dump to interview people who had worked there- women in their 40s who looked double their age, leathered from the unhealthful effects of breathing in dangerous fumes in the hot sun. I couldn’t get into the dump despite being nice to the guards, who said they’d get in trouble with the plant if they let me in. Would’ve made great photos but maybe it’s best- I had a runny nose and sneezed just from being on the outskirts for 5 minutes.

I wanted to report on the Iranian community in Nicaragua- Managua has has large, beautiful, mysterious mosque smacked in the middle that seemed to come out of nowhere. But I stopped by 3 times, each time the guards telling me something different- “come in the morning tomorrow”; “we’re only open afternoons”; “we don’t allow press in”…. Dropped that story.

I’m reporting on baseball- what the chances are of people here actually making it pro. MBL chances seem realistic for many, and parents push their kids to play baseball as little as age 6 because a draft is as a way out of poverty. Some who do make it to the MLB have trouble adjusting to the drastic jump in money, fame- I talked to one guy who was sent back to Nica because he was partying too much, drove drunk, etc. Baseball is huge in Nicaragua though….I went to a few games and talked with lots of scouts, coaches, players.

I’m writing about how funny second hand clothing can be here- seeing guys in T-shirst that say “I love Texas” or Miley Cirus shirts on old ladies is hilarious and sad…interviewed one girl that said people don’t necessarily know what the shirts say but buy 2nd hand clothing for necessity (it’s cheaper than new clothes there). This was cool for me- I bought a lot of cool second hand clothes for very cheap (favorite is a nice calvin klein wrap dress for $10)!

I’m writing about how fast food in Nicaragua isn’t “fast”…it’s expensive, and seen as a cool thing to eat for people who can afford it. In the US, fast food is typically seen as shit food for people of lower income. But in Nica it’s trendy- Pizza Hut in Managua looked like a fancy Italian restaurant!

I’m writing about gay culture- how machismo and Catholicism contribute to the struggle of gays in Nica.  I’m writing about crime and prostitution, and Granada’s art and historical scene. Tunnels were discovered underground Granada connecting the city’s churches and nice old houses that were used for protection from pirates and from which William Walker escaped after he burned Granada. I visited ruins in the north of the country- a UNESCO site where 80% of the remaining remnants from the Spanish fort have yet to be discovered (there’s only one archeologist, a Nicaraguan, working at it!). A Chinese magazine asked me to write a piece about the Canal (which is looking increasingly like a reality), so I’m working on that too! 

I did all the reporting in Nica, but will write here at home. I just reached a point where I wanted to be home. The two worlds are mixing and it feels weird but I am safe and comfortable and still engaged and happy. 

Nice Eclectic Mix

The Sandinistas had their incestual love affair at the revolutionary triumph celebration today. Thousands of people from all over the country made their way on buses, cars, bikes, trucks to pay homage to Ortega, who I consider at best a borderline dictator. While Nicaragua has been stable and open to more foreign investment and tourism in recent years, the government is using this to whitewash all of the shitty residue and sell the regime to the uneducated to remain in power for as long as possible. Interesting to see how long he can stay in office before power becomes too concentrated.

Nicaraguan politik is actually quite similar to that of Cambodia. Both had major civil wars/genocide in the 70s with unrest lasting through the 90s, have war-heroes-turned-politicians who have consolidated power to limit freedom of speech so that opposition parties have no chance, yet open the country economically to foreign investment and embrace capitalism- quite a Chinese-like policy of social repression amid economic progress. Both have adequately ticked off Western governments and aid machines but not enough to alienate them. Both are wild and undeveloped, especially compared to their more Western-friendly (yet arguably more touristy and thus, plastic) neighbors Thailand and Costa Rica, but have enough infrastructure for modern comfort.

Though no one is really sure when either leader- Cambodia’s Hun Sen or Nicaragua’s Ortega- will leave office, it’s encouraging to see that in Cambodia, the main opposition leader returned after 4 years of self-imposed exile to avoid a prison sentence for convictions pardoned last week in time for the country’s elections. Very interesting to watch! Cambodia had so much going on in the past year, with Petraus’ visit (which I covered!), Obama’s visit, ASEAN, the ongoing saga of the Khmer Rouge Trials, and now Sam Raimsy’s return. Pretty cool stuff.

Although I’m not rolling in the dough, I love what I’m doing. People’s perception of work greatly confounds me. After graduation from college, I got a job at a cushiony PR firm making a very respectable salary for a newbie. My family and friends congratulated me with impress. But at the end of the day, I could hardly look myself in the mirror knowing what I did for most of my waking hours had no meaning- I was writing press releases and tweets for insurance companies, banks, pharmaceutical companies. Why were people impressed that I had this “good” job? To me, it wasn’t impressive at all. After I was fired slash mutually quit (we left on good terms- both decided it was simply the wrong fresh-out-of-college job for me as management could clearly detect my apathy for what I was doing and could not force), and got the gig in Cambodia, I learned that happiness is so much more than money, security, or what is traditionally seen as a “good job.”

When I am interviewing and educating myself on a multitude of issues on the day-to-day as journalists do to write with authority, I am happy. In Cambodia, I didn’t care that I worked 12 hour workdays under deadlines and tirelessly worked on stories on my own time on weekends all for little pay- I loved what I was doing and was happy to put in the hours to get better or get a good story. To me, having meaning in my work is incredibly important to wellbeing; I love getting out of bed in the morning with a goal- a challenge- excited to engage my curiosity in the many issues to explore, and creativity and ask questions and learn and write and expose and educate. I think if you like what you do you’ll be good at it and go far.

Interviewing cool people definitely helps. For the most part, both Cambodians and Nicaraguans I worked with and lived beside were inspiring, lovely, hardworking and humorous people. A few days ago was the only time I felt really down in Nicaragua. After hailing a cab to bring me to the family’s house where I was staying, the driver went a very roundabout way and what should have been a 5-block ride turned into 10 minutes. I was alone and felt powerless and he demanded extra cash, which I gave as I had no smaller change on me (I always try to keep small bills for this sort of thing) to avoid conflict. But it was wrong and I felt violated and alone and sick of things being hard. I absolutely detest feeling powerless and I left the cab and cried for a few minutes enveloped in the white mosquito net around my bed before I stopped the pity party.

Things are definitely easier when you have someone by your side- and a car. In Cambodia, my world changed when I started dating someone who opened me to a different side of Cambodia living. It was nice to have someone I was attracted to, converse well and have fun with who also happened to have a car, his own pharmaceutical company and a lot of high-up connections. Life became much sweeter when I could explore the exotic countryside and jungle (or drive through the Angkor Wat complex in the middle of the night) without a bus, when I had a handsome guy picking me up after work and treating to everything from beautiful dinners at glamorous Southeast Asian/French restaurants to whatever luxury resort I wanted, or clothes, shoes, movies, music, drink. Life became more fun when my boyfriend treated my friends and I to nights out in Phnom Penh’s main nightclub that he helped build, where he and I chose the music and came and left through the VIP exit. Someone to share wine on the beach with, to explore and ride elephants through waterfalls with, someone to greet me/see me off at the airport, host a birthday dinner, cook and exercise and joke with. Someone who spoke the language, Khmer, and knew all sorts of people and places for all sorts of occasions.

Now I’m back to doing it on my own, but I’m OK with that. I learned the hard way that such dependency- even dependency you did not ask for- that sparkles can be dangerous, even toxic, and all the good and sparks and power you shared can turn a 180 and blow back all the more so the things that worked with you can work against you. Even if you think you are in the driver’s seat- deciding where to go when- the wallet is in control. It was good for what it was worth, but I’m glad that ship has sailed.

I’ve thrown myself into a new environment where I’m able to scratch at issues that fascinate me, and this is wonderful therapy. I’ve loved working with my editor in Nicaragua- a very talented journalist and editor who mainly preserves my pieces and is very encouraging. I’ve better honed what makes a good story vs not, and he has taught me how to face both good and bad criticism. As a writer, you open yourself to public scrutiny with your work. One little misstep in fact or number or misspelling of name or place in an article can have big consequences- when I first started out, I definitely had a few middle-of-the-nights where I’d awake thinking about whether numbers in an article were correct after the paper went to press. In the end, it usually is, but the sweat is a trip.

So far, I’ve had two incidents of negative reception to an article. The first was in Cambodia, where I reported on a United Nations conference where a migration committee was urging Cambodia to sign onto a migration and labor convention that protects workers abroad (many Cambodians are sent abroad as domestic workers and end up in slave-like conditions). The headline of our story read “UN Pushes Cambodia” to sign the treaty, and the UN shot back saying it would never push anything as it’s not their right. Sorry, UN, but a journalist’s job is not to use your nice PR lingo but tell it like it is. The second, and most recent negative feedback was with a story I wrote about a soccer organization teaching sex ed, filling a void in Nicaragua’s conservative society where sex ed is taboo and teenage pregnancy is sky high. Though the NGO’s staff provided me with all of the info in the article, the boss back in Boston headquarters apparently did not know much about the sex ed initiative and so slammed my piece as incorrect (her reaction highlighted the disconnect between on-the-ground field work and management a continent away). Sorry, but it’s a journalist’s job to find what is interesting and write about it, not tip toe around official statements what PR wants you to write. To me, the controversy makes the piece even better as long as quotes and facts are accurate. (Article here:

Many of my articles have been praised. But as my editor said, you can’t take the praise too seriously just as you wouldn’t the criticism.

I absolutely love journalism- the steep learning curve and work of art produced after lots of reporting that actually DOES something, even if it’s little (especially for investigatory pieces…my favorite). But I think I’m phasing out of it. I won’t cross it off the list, but it’s a great job for a young energetic person who can move around freely and not care about low pay. Looking ahead, I want a family, and deadlines, low pay, erratic schedule (news happens all the time…not in a neat 9-5 packet), make it not the most conducive for the kind of life I want. I’ll be studying international relations starting the fall, and hope to find more stable yet still interesting work in this field. I’m not sure exactly which focus I’ll take- labor rights, security, development, emerging markets and start ups, refugees, human rights (how can you know exactly what you want to do where there are a million interesting things that all tie together?)- but I think I’m heading in the right direction for honing in. I’m also super into wellness- just being in Whole Foods makes me extremely happy (I spent the majority of my 21st birthday in Whole Foods), vitamins, herbs, acupuncture, smoothies, wellness spas, etc, are my jam. I’ve thought of combining this passion with international affairs and starting some sort of business, but we’ll see. Few things on the drawing board at the moment but all exciting prospects.

For now, I’m writing on how a Nicaraguan canal might rock relations with Costa Rica, who recently called Nicaragua a “bad neighbor” (the two have a historic border feud), and Panama, which already has a canal and is completing a major renovation project. I’m writing about how offering Snowden asylum was bad for Nica, about crime and security, prostitution and milk, bamboo houses and a dump, baseball and gay life, evangelicalism and rallies. Nice eclectic mix.

The High and Low Life

My eyelids flutter as the sparrows sing a goodmorning symphony in the light creeping through my window, and I linger weightlessly in that sweet moment between sleeping and waking.

I bathe in the silky sheets cooled by the champagne colored bedroom’s air condition and I slowly rise to await my breakfast in the elegant dining room before being driven off to a meeting in a nearby cafe.

Only two days earlier, I was eating street fritanga (rice and beans, fried plantain, chicken), staying in a rustic hostel, and relying on biking, running, and hitching a ride in the back of fruit trucks for transportation. Three days before, I was staying in a treehouse in the middle of the jungle listening to monkeys howl in the trees around me and watching the stars from my hammock.


Such are the extremes of developing country living. One minute, you are reporting in slums and the next sipping pineapple daiquiris with embassy officials on a sailboat overlooking a tropical beach (true story).

I’m either fearless or crazy or curious or a mix of the 3, but I try to do things in Nicaragua as most Nicaraguans do. I ride the chicken buses, I go into their factories, their schools, eat the same food (except the fried things). My college anthropology professor called journalism ‘fast anthropology’, and I think she was right. Like actors do well when they immerse themselves in their roles, journalists are most accurate when they immerse themselves in what they’re reporting. You learn as much as you can about a culture and topic and write and move on.

When I am reporting in Managua, seek friendship and/or the comforts of home, I head to my friend Leslie’s house. Leslie is a girl my age from Nicaragua, and we went to the same college, and were actually in the same Spanish class. She and her family are so incredibly hospitable and kind, and it’s nice to have a friend here.

A couple of days ago, I went to the beach with Leslie’s friends. From our leather-seated, air conditioned car, we saw zona francas (free trade zone factories) on the side of the highway pop up on the side of the road though the crowded, sweaty school buses Nicaragua uses for its inter-city transportation. The girls sitting in the front seat next to her driver said her uncle owns a textile factory,  and my nice little day trip was dampened with the thought of slave-like conditions in zona francas I had just written about ( and my stomach turns.

At the beach, we visit a resort nestled in the mountains overlooking the ocean, and swim in the peerless pool. We indulge in the freshest guacamole and cevice (mahi mahi, citrus and spices) on Earth and chat with the owner, a guy named Gabriel who I’d met clubbing one night when I was living by the beach. Gabriel’s American parents headed down to Nica in the ’80s to help out with the Sandinista Revolution and he was raised on Ometepe- the mystical island and my favorite place in Nicaragua that boasts two volcanoes, towering waterfalls, sparkling pools made of volcanic mineral water, coffee plants, organic farms, rocks with hieroglyphics and horses roaming wild amid the mango trees. Ometepe is a  magical and charming place where life is simple and pure; everyone walks, bikes, swims and runs around the organic farms and beaches below the towering volcanoes and absorbs the indigenous vibe of the place. Gabriel’s dad tells me he teaches at GW University in DC, where I’ll be in the fall, and says he is asked back for his curious viewpoint since he things international development is bogus.


It’s nice to have a good group of people to hang with. When I lived beachside, I lived by myself, and despite making friends with local beach bums, my guard and restaurateurs, I was sometimes fearful of being the journalist living alone in the small town, especially since I was reporting on a major crime in the area (

Later that night, our group dines on fish and vegetables and dark chocolate and red wine-my favorite palate- on a patio amid lush greens, canopy and candlelight, and I enjoy feeling clean and womanly wearing a dress I bought in Granada laughing and postulating over the wine.

It was a nice break from the fried food dominating the Nicaraguan food supply. Though this country produces many organic, nutritious foods, most are exported and Nicas pretty much stick to fritanga. Many of the problems Nicaraguans have could be solved by such simple procedures we have in the West- reduced diabetes and heart disease with less fried food, better teeth with the ability to have a cavity filled, blindness with the ability to have seen a doctor for an eye check up.

While I’ve been here, I’ve tried to treat myself well. I’ve indulged in a couple of wonderful massages and acupuncture, gotten a hair trim, run, swim, bike, eat fresh (favorite: hibiscus tea) and shop a bit- AMAZING deals on clothing and shoes here. Let me tell you, the clothes you give to good will actually do end up in much needed places, though entrepreneurial people have learnt to buy the incoming clothing shipments and sell them for a fee. It’s simultaneously hilarious and sad to see Nicaraguans wearing Prom ’05 or Birmingham YMCA shirts, sporting Miley Cyrus bags and t-shirts with cuss words on them without realizing what they’re wearing.

In terms of reporting, I’m happy with where my writing is and proud of what I’m doing but don’t take much time to reflect on it because I want to keep the articles coming. Getting information is much more difficult here than it was in Cambodia, where our newsroom shared contact information for sources. Here, there’s none of that, so I find people the hard way- a little of showing up in places they might be, looking up numbers and emails online and trying to get a hold of people, and a lot of asking people for sources through word of mouth. I’ve thought of all the ideas for my articles except one, and once I get the green light I chase it down. I’ve learned some stories are almost impenetrable to write on at their core- sex trafficking and wood poaching, for example. I tried a hand at both, and after a few interviews realized the issues here are just too deep for me to be willing to risk my safety to chip away at, and found it better to write on the issues at the fringe (example:

The Dispatch ended sooner than I expected because my editor received a Nieman Fellowship and had to head to the US. I am understanding because the Nieman is pretty much the highest accolade in journalism, with 6 fellows from around the globe each year accepted to study at Harvard. This is my second editor who was a Nieman fellow, the first being my head editor in Cambodia.

With the Dispatch over with, I was about to make my way onto Guatemala and Mexico when The Tico Times English newspaper in Costa Rica contacted asking me to be their Nicaragua stringer since there are really no other bilingual journalists here. I decided to stay longer and try it out, and I am trying to freelance some pieces. I don’t mind sticking around a bit more because I like that I am feeling comfortable in Nicaragua. While I was on Ometepe in a little organic cafe, I struck up a conversation with the guy who sells the only coconut oil products all over the country. It was so nice to know he recognized me: “Oh, you’re the new journalist here! I’ve been reading your stuff and wanted to meet you!”…that’s a nice feeling and I like building a feeling of familiarity.

Tomorrow I am going to the Sandinista celebration in Managua for their 1979 revolutionary triumph…probably going to be a shitshow and hopefully Ortega speaks. Most people have told me not to go and avoid Managua like the plague on the 19 de julio, but since journalists usually go where people tell you not to to get the story, I’m going. I’ve reported once already on a hectic event here- the dias patronales ( where townsmen honor their patron saints by whipping each other with wooden sticks and petrified bull penises to slap away evil spirits. People have lost eyes and ears and it was a bit scary to be in the bunch.Image

Today I went to hotsprings outside Granada where water from the ground travels up into a sauna and natural swimming pool. Once I got back, I did some writing and joined a group of Nicaraguans and my housemates- all American girls here working for NGOs- for a late night swim at a nearby country club. Very relaxed but tired at the same time!

Signing off. Goodnight.

“Big Fish Eat Little Fish”

As I sway in an old wooden rocking chair beneath the brilliant moonbeams unclouded from human activity above the secluded island, a conversation with a nearby guard lingers in the humid air.

“There’s no work here in Nicaragua. The Sandinistas used to represent something different- revolution, the people. But now the big fish eat the little fish again. Power corrupts everybody,” Carlos said as he sat in the chair next to mine on a break from his night shift at the restaurant across the street from my hostel.

The sound of the waves from the lake surrounding us lapping against the base of two volcanoes here on this island called Ometepe fills the heavy silence of the night and I think Carlos is more with it than most Nicaraguans.

During the country’s civil war, the Sandinistas represented Nicaraguans all too ready to rid the country of its post-colonial handlers- the ruling Somoza family, who were empowered by the United States.

But now that the Sandinistas run the show, they represent the very thing they fought against during the war: authoritative, oppressive and exploitative government. “People are afraid of this government,” Carlos said- and it’s true. Who wouldn’t fear a government that suppresses freedom of expression and beats down protesters, divides its opposition to weaken them, deports naysayers and unilaterally pushes votes through Congress, riding itself of any politicians who vote contrarily.

Though half the population here lives below the poverty line, few recognize President Ortega’s negligence of his constituents and instead take solace in his welfare programs, overlooking his failure to reform the core issues in the country such as education or employment as they focus on getting by day-to-day.

But Carlos gets it. And I’m grateful that he opens up to me. I love being able to speak the language here; once Nicaraguans realize I work here, am genuinely interested in what’s going on in the country and I speak their language, they open up to share priceless information.- tips on taxi fares, where to buy what, but also their family histories and what they feel about the country and government (to the extent to which they can talk without fear). I love that I can talk to a farmer in a field harvesting beans, a taxi driver, a kid on the street or a night guard. It’s nice not to rely on a translator to get the real deal myself, and certainly helps with the fluidity of interviews.


Tomorrow, I’ll hike one of the two volcanoes on Ometepe- the island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua where I’m currently staying. One of the volcanoes has a lagoon at the top, and the other is an active volcano with lava oozing down one side. There’s also coffee and chocolate farms to visit alongside the volcanoes, a waterfall to hike to, hieroglyphics to check out, an ocean-like lake to swim in and plenty of bike riding and horseback riding.

I climbed my first volcano on Sunday as a post-deadline treat. I had written 5 heavy duty articles last week and was delighted to have a much needed break. My two housemates, their coworkers from a children’s school where they’re volunteering and I headed out on a half hour bus ride from our lovely colonial home town of Granada to Mombocho volcano. Bus service here means old yellow school buses exported from the US to be used here as Nica has laxer carbon output regulations. A few hours’ ride can cost as little as $1.50 paid in coins (though Managua is now getting techy and switching to electronic payment…I wrote about it here:  .

Hiking Mombacho was wonderful, mostly for the lively company and stunning views of the volcano’s crater, islands formed by lava however many years ago, the smoky sulfur popping up through its misty rainforest, and sloths and monkeys hanging around. One psychic guy I interviewed for a story about witchcraft in Nicaragua  ( thinks Mombacho will erupt in 2015. If so, it’s cool to say I climbed it.

After the hike, our group cooked a dinner of eggs, veggies, pasta and hash browns. Apart from the fruit, food is not the bragging point of Central America, where fried foods and sugary drinks abound. But the dinner satiated more than a stomach could. Our group representing India, Britain, Virginia, New York and Belgium sat for hours discussing life and death, love and hate, division and unity, religion and politics- all the topics your mom tells you you shouldn’t discuss at dinner except we do because w’re interested and young and present and passionate and we can.


am grateful to have met so many passionate, curious, fun, worldly, intelligent, heartfelt and involved people abroad during the past 2 years. Wonderful people travel, especially in developing countries- friendly spirits who are open to the world and realize it is much bigger than we are yet smaller than we think, who want to embrace and challenge all there is in life, to throw themselves into an unpredictable and uncomfortable atmosphere and have a wild ride, and who want to make a difference doing so. I’ve met former employees of the Federal Reserve, Department of Defense, big advertising agencies who have quit their jobs to “feel more alive, more human,” as they say. I’ve met some out-there hippies married to their surfboard and granola and free love, on-a-mission foreign service officers and aid workers, a curious bunch of journalists and NGO folk, business people looking to capitalize on countries’ nascent markets, and the party backpackers traveling through. In any case, all have been open, adventurous, smart, and fun.

Checking out for now- getting up early to swim, bike, run and hike around the island! Hasta luego!


Is horrible. It really is.

When I decided upon venturing to Latin America, l received numerous warnings about Latino dating culture: “Don’t get involved with any guys down there…you know…machismo,” I was told. While dating is the last thing on my mind, I soon realized machismo isn’t just about dating…it’s about guys constantly whistling/hissing to you or patting your behind when you walk down the street (even if every inch of you is covered and they swerve over to you on their bicycle which also happens to be holding their 5-year-old son). It’s about men taking the prerogative to invade your personal bubble, masturbating in the streets or flirting with any female in sight before moving on to the next one.

So far I have felt much more unsafe in Latin America ( at least Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica and Nicaragua) than Southeast Asia, Kenya, and of course, Europe. And I attribute this to machismo. While Southeast Asia is generally more chilled out now (maybe it’s the Buddhist thing?…besidesBurma of course…), Latin America is not. The type of crime here scares me- it’s quite premeditated, vindictive, and systematic, often involving many accomplices. Taxi scams are common- taxis are allowed to pick up other passengers en route, and cases have occurred where the driver will pick up a friend who will rob passengers at gun or knifepoint, bringing them to an ATM machine to withdraw all their cash and then dropping the victims off in a remote location. Armed robberies upon foreigners are all too common here.

In Bogota, I took a 2 minute cab ride with a local guy, and when the driver charged us too high a fare (seeing as I’m a foreigner and with his blue eyes and caucasian features from his Spanish descent, the local looked so too), the local protested and paid what he said was the normal fare. A verbal fight escalated into a bloody full-on fist fight on the street with a crowd gathered round as I stood there offering to pay (didn’t matter…this was now a macho-macho fight). When the taxi driver threatened to kidnap me if the local didn’t pay more, we both ran away until the crazy driver followed us around the corner, parked, ran out with a crowbar in his hand sprinting toward the local guy. I darted off as soon as possible in the other direction. Like, wow….all this for a dollar. Take a chill pill “men.”

Yes, poverty is behind a lot of the desperation and violence. But so is attitude. I’m not quite sure how the women here put up with it- men are notorious for leaving their wives, kids or impregnated girlfriends only to do the same again. Of course there are exceptions and this is quite a broad brush I am painting, but I’m not afraid to call out a blatant trend. Most of the country’s small businesses are owned by women, who in most instances singlehandedly raise their (many) children and keep the households running. This is true for many developing countries, but machismo adds a certain punch to it.

I’m currently working on an article about microfinance projects for women- how the simplest of loans could help kickstart a small sustainable business like honeymaking or jewelry crafting. There’s no shortage of women’s rights issues to focus on here- from underground abortions (all abortion is illegal in Nicaragua) to domestic violence to teen pregnancy rates, Nicaragua has its fair share of obstacles facing women I’d argue are on par with many Middle Eastern states.

Normally I don’t acknowledge the hoots and howls, but occasionally, after about 30 in one day, my anger will accumulate so that I flip off the culprits or tell them to “callate,” or shut it.

The calls mostly happen on my runs, but I run anyway. Lately I have been running along the ocean to the top of a nearby mountain with a statue of Jesus towering above all of San Juan del Sur, the beach town where I live.

San Juan is a funny place- a small fishing village turned surfer haven. One local remarked that he didn’t like how tourists have come into his town, saying he disliked the dreadlocks and half naked guests and resented gringo hotel and restaurant owners for exploiting local labor.

The double-edge sword of tourism is most definitely a recurring issue here in Nicaragua. Tourism has provided jobs as tour guides, waiters or conservationists to many Nicaraguans, but also makes them dependent on a foreign growth model and changes local culture into mimicking carefree gringos here to have a good time on vacation.

I only have two days left in San Juan before returning to the middle of the country! Here is a photo of my running mountain with the Jesus statue! Gets me every time…