All posts by Laura

Travel junkie and former tour leader turned Sustainable International Development student. Currently working on linking tourism and sustainable development in Egypt.

A Muslim Wedding in New York

This weekend, I traveled to New York City for the wedding of my dear friend D from high school. The ceremony was held at a mosque in Queens, with a  reception at a nearby Halal restaurant. Though I’ve been to innumerable Catholic, Protestant, Unitarian, and Jewish weddings, this was my first Muslim wedding ceremony, and it was beautiful. D wore a purple caftan hand-tailored in Pakistan, and her hands and feet were covered with intricate Moroccan designs in henna. Her new husband wore a suit and smiled from ear to ear. The imam, a friend of the couple, spoke about love and responsibility in marriage, and how each of them should bring out the best in the other.  Then the couple read vows that they had written themselves and exchanged rings.

Before the ceremony, and later at the reception, I had the privilege of meeting several of D’s friends and colleagues–men and women of all races, from at least three continents, representing different nationalities, religions, and sexual orientations. In this microcosm, we talked about everything from travel to linguistic jokes, to women’s colleges to whitewater rafting. And the fact that we were all able to talk and laugh together, despite many of us only having met for the first time that day, gave me such a sense of hope. A union of this kind, between an American woman and an Egyptian man, with the love and support of both families in the midst of such a diverse and accepting crowd, could happen in very few places in the world. New York City is one of those places. And despite the bitter diatribes that have arisen in the city over the so-called “ground zero mosque” and the social fault lines that often arise over lines of color, ethnicity, and creed, beautiful moments of unity like this one still occur. It reminds me that for all its faults, the United States is still a place where people of different backgrounds can come together.  It’s a reminder of the best that the country of my birth can be.

Aerial Shenanigans at Smith

Despite my last post about Reunion feeling slightly strange to me because only a portion of my community was there, the fact is that I had a blast with the friends that I did see. We caught up, we bought drinks, we ate delicious food, we wandered around campus and celebrated old memories and made new ones. Most of these new memories involved good conversations and having good food and wine and revisiting old haunts.

And then there was this one.

My friend Echo is an aerialist, and she majored in Engineering at Smith, back when the then-new department was housed in a temporary building affectionately dubbed the “Green Monster” for being an eyesore in an otherwise beautiful brick-and-ivy campus. Now that the very new and shiny engineering and science building is up and running, Echo felt that she had to pay tribute/play a prank in the best way she knows how: by hanging from the ceiling.

Now, Echo has been a friend for a long time now, and I know that she is generally quite paranoid about safety. I also know that she is incredibly stubborn, and that any attempts to dissuade her that might be made by well-meaning friends would almost certainly backfire. So I knew it was my duty as a friend and fellow aerialist to come with her and make sure that she didn’t break her neck while attaching her silks to the ceiling.

Also, I admit it. I wanted to hang from the ceiling too.

Along the way, we found another Smithie aerialist and her girlfriend, who wanted to participate in the insanity. But because there was only enough equipment for one person at a time, and Echo was the only one who knew anything about rigging, she was the one to go climb on the beams.

So. This was the space we were working with.

 

The very tall atrium in which we were planning to hang silks.

 

 

 

We went in, wielding the kind of equipment normally associated with mountain climbing: a harness, carabiners, ropes, etc.  And Echo began to climb.

 

Echo sorts the span sets while hooked onto a beam.

 

She got to the main pillar…

 

Can I really climb this thing?

 

And discovered that she couldn’t actually get the span sets over the main beam.

 

If I only had a few more tools...

So. We decided to simplify our plan and hang from one of the lower beams, and Echo began the slow process of shimmying back along the beams she’d climbed on previously in order to get back to the balcony where the rest of us were standing. As we traipsed downstairs, we were intercepted by a Public Safety officer.

A report of people climbing on the beams? Surely not!

But we confessed to trying to hang fabric from the ceiling (without mentioning that we were planning to then climb, contort, and otherwise do tricks on said fabric), and told him that we had special insurance (which was entirely true). Unsurprisingly, he still said we needed to leave. Damn.

So, no actual photos of doing aerial dance or acrobatics. But we didn’t die, and we didn’t get arrested, and we now have a story to tell…

 

 

College Revisited, Five Years Later

This weekend, I went to my 5-year reunion. For four amazing years of my life, I went to Smith College, a women’s college where I met some of the best friends I’ve ever had, some of the most inspiring professors I’ve ever found, and the most amazing partner I could have asked for. Since graduating, I’ve been back several times, to visit friends  who were still students, to attend their graduations, to attend my own unofficial 2-year reunion for a much-needed dose of girl power in the midst of a year in Morocco. All of those visits have been amazing. But none have been quite like this.

This time, my 5-year reunion, was beautiful and bittersweet. I saw many wonderful friends, some of whom I hadn’t seen since graduation, some of whom I’d seen regularly as long as we were in the same states. I was struck, though, by two things. First, the fact that many of my close friends from Smith were not from my graduation year, and consequently were not in attendance. Somehow, in my mind, I had envisioned that absolutely everyone I cared about from my time at Smith would be there, people who were seniors my first year and people who were first years my senior year, all rolled into one. Professors who have been retired for years would be there too. And coming back, to find that that was not the case, made the weekend feel incomplete. As though the community that I created for myself during my time at Smith was only half-present, the other half inexplicably gone.

I also realized that for the first time, I no longer know anyone at Smith other than the faculty. All of my friends have graduated now, even the youngest of them, and all the current students are strangers to me. It was strange to find that in this place, where I have felt the greatest sense of belonging, I no longer truly have a place except in memory. Moments that once seemed to extend into forever are now laid down in lavender, to be preserved and taken out as keepsakes. Everything on campus seemed smaller, less imposing than my memory had painted. Or maybe I’ve just grown.

 

Reflections on Bin Laden’s death

The news of Osama Bin Laden’s death has spread around the world like wildfire. Many Americans seem overjoyed at this news, and impromptu celebrations have broken out in New York and DC. An outpouring of yay-America-down-with-the-evil-terrorists sentiment prevailed.

I understand that many people feel that the death of Bin Laden at the hands of US operatives constitutes justice and retribution for the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Very few people have said as much, but there seems to be a sense that since the bad guy is dead the world can return to normal and all is right with the world, just like in a Disney movie. I can’t be so sure. First of all, it strikes me as simplistic to think of one person as a personification of evil. In my experience, the world is rarely so black and white. Furthermore, the idea of celebrating anyone’s death with jubilation is morally repugnant to me. Even a political enemy. Even a terrorist. His death may have been politically necessary, but that does not change the fact that he is still a human being. His death is not a cause for celebration, nor does it make America great.

The US has invested a lot of time, effort, blood, and money in Iraq and Afghanistan over the course of the past decade. The death of a terrorist figurehead will not change that investment, nor will it be the cue for America’s forces to pick up and go home. The US has reasons to stay in the Middle East, and fighting terrorism is only one of them. The death of Bin Laden is unlikely to put any kind of stop to terrorist action in the world. If anything, news of US citizens celebrating Osama’s death is likely to fuel anti-American sentiment in regions that already have no reason to love the USA but are afraid to get on its bad side. Not to mention the fact that every child who grows up in a refugee camp because US bombs destroyed his home has the motivation to become a terrorist. The US has created a lot of orphans like this–we have effectively planted dragon’s teeth. From what I have learned this year on the psychology of conflict,we’re going to be facing war for a long, long time.

Subdued response to news in Middle East (CNN)

Pakistani News in English (link courtesy of a Pakistani friend of mine)

Al Jazeera English (the best source for non-US-centric news on the Middle East)

Gulf Oil Spill Revisited

This evening I went to a panel at Busboys and Poets, DC’s trendy, lefty, bar/restaurant/political forum/bookstore. A woman named Antonia Juhasz spoke about her new book Black Tide: The Devastating Impact of the Gulf Oil Spill. She was joined by panelists from Greenpeace and the Center for Biological Diversity.

It was an interesting talk. The three of them rehashed the details of how much oil had been spilled (that we’re aware of), how many lawsuits are currently being leveled against BP and Transocean (about a thousand), and how contrary to what we’ve all been told, most of the oil is still out there in the Gulf and hasn’t been cleaned. Apparently, the oil companies didn’t bother to do any of the research that they were supposed to have done with regards to how to clean up oil, so they had no techniques but the same ones used to clean up the Exxon-Valdez oil spill in 1989. Which clearly didn’t work all that well.

Being from the Gulf Coast of Florida, the Deepwater Horizon spill touches a nerve for me. Every time I hear about it, and learn more of the details of the gross negligence that contributed to both the occurrence of the disaster and its scale, I see red. I want to single-handedly swim to the bottom of the Gulf and clean up the oil coating the sea floor. I want to single-handedly revive the coastal fishing industry and ensure that all the fish and shrimp are safe to eat. I want to do something.

And this is where events like this fall short. Because they remind me of all my pent-up frustration with the world,and don’t give concrete ways in which I can contribute, other than donating cash that as a grad student I don’t have. There is very little that I personally can do for the Gulf Coast. And that, more than anything, makes me feel frustrated.

Washington DC–loves and loathes

I’m currently back in DC, where I lived for a year following my return to the US from Russia. This week has reminded me of many things about the city, the ones I love and the ones I loathe. Rather than giving a blow-by-blow account of everything I’ve seen and done during my week in the city, I think it makes the most sense to give the rundown of all my favorite and least-favorite aspects of this place that I once called home.

Things I love about DC:

1. Independent Bookstores, restaurants, and coffee shops

I love that in DC I only have to visit chains if I want to. In this week, I have successfully managed to frequent nothing but independently owned and operated businesses. The excellent bookstores of Politics and Prose and Kramerbooks have wide selections of publications you actually want to read (as opposed to giant displays of Twilight-themed paraphernalia), and they both have their own cafes attached. For coffee and tea, there are any number of good options, including my new favorite of Baked and Wired in Georgetown. And the restaurants of DC are many and varied, from hole-in-the-wall establishments serving authentic food from pretty much any country you can think of, to places where cuisine is elevated to a high art. Sadly, I can’t afford to eat at the latter nearly as often as I’d like. But it’s nice to know that they’re there.

2. Neighborhoods with personality

A corollary to the first point. Neighborhoods that foster independent businesses tend to acquire a flavor all their own. I tend to hang out a fair amount in Dupont Circle, with forays into U Street and occasionally Adams Morgan. Georgetown is a bit upscale and consumerist for my general comfort, but the presence of the aforementioned bakery and coffee shop guarantees the occasional visit. It’s nice to be able to get to places with such different flavors easily, and know that I’ll have a different experience in each one.

3. Affordable arts and culture

Arts are expensive to pursue in most places, so one of the things that I love about DC is the fact that the arts are accessible to the wider public. The world-class Smithsonian Museum is free, and every night there are free concerts at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage. If you want to dance, my favorite studio Joy of Motion has affordable classes and proclaims that “dance is for everyone.” And at Joe’s Movement Emporium, an aerialist friend and I were able to rent practice space this week without sacrificing our firstborn children to pay for it.

 

 

Things I hate about DC:

1. Corporate/Political Culture

Remember what I said about all the distinct neighborhoods? That’s only part of the picture. There are large swathes of DC that are soulless corporate blocks where Starbucks-toting suits rush along in briefcases and uncomfortable shoes. These are the places that I try not to frequent–pretty much any area with a high rise. Usually you’ll find a chain coffee shop on every corner, no real restaurants in sight, and people who look too stressed out to be enjoying all the money that they earn.

2. Rampant Social Inequality

DC is arguably one of the most important cities in the Western hemisphere politically. Some of the most powerful people in the world live and work here, or come visit from miles away and stay in fancy hotels. Yet DC also has one of the highest rates of homelessness in the country. Children who grow up in poor neighborhoods like Anacostia may never set foot outside the slums of DC, even though three international airports and multiple embassies are just a stone’s throw away. The high level of social stratification in the city is a microcosm of the social stratification of the US. At least the capitol is reflective of the country as a whole.

 

3. Traffic and Transportation

If you drive in DC, you will quickly learn that the traffic is insane, the streets are confusing, and the rules of the road are really more guidelines. Add to that that building interference and CIA scramblers will make your GPS lose signal approximately every 2.5 minutes, and driving in DC is clearly not a walk in the park.

Which brings me to the metro.

This one is more of a love/hate relationship. I absolutely love that the DC metro system exists, and I wish that more cities in the US had good public transit systems. That said…the metro doesn’t function well at all. It’s expensive and takes forever, and after the highly publicized crash in 2009 it came to light that the metro system hadn’t been well maintained in years. There are entire websites devoted to the issues with the DC metro. Though I could rant for ages about it, I think the best illustration of the glories of the DC metro are best explained through humor. Behold: the metro song.


 

A Beginning

After more than a year away from the blogosphere, I’m returning to the internet at last. Progress will likely be slow at first, since I’m currently in the middle of grad school finals. For earlier posts on my traveling life, please look here.  For photography, please visit here.