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To Speak or Not To Speak…

The two questions most often asked of me are as follows:
1.    Do you travel alone? Which leads to the “isn’t that scary?” and “doesn’t that get lonely?” questions.
2.    Do you speak any languages? Which leads to the follow-up “isn’t that hard?”

At this time, I’d like to address the second question, albeit, my last entry may have effectively done so. In the event that there is confusion, no-I don’t speak any other languages… and in follow-up, yes, it can be quite difficult.

There are a few ways of dealing with this fact.
1.    Acknowledge you are one of those ignorant Americans who has shamefully never learned more than the minimum.
2.    Hold your head high and walk with purpose, knowing you represent a large percentage of society who also speaks only one language and questions whether it is possible to travel as such.
3.    Learn a language.

While some may assume the first option is the most honest, I would counter that although true, it most likely will lead to a lack of self-confidence. This then will affect one’s ability to meet new people and result certainly in a self-perpetuating shame, which is not good for anyone, especially travelers! Others will argue that option 3 make the most sense. However, the problem with option 3 is you have to decide on one language, and there are SO many. When finally you do decide on one, you will inevitably want to focus your travels on areas that accommodate your new tongue. So in the end you are more limited. Furthermore, learning a new language is much harder than options 1 and 2.

Therefore, given my options, I feel quite strongly that it is my duty not only to not know another language, but to be darn proud of it. Now that we’ve cleared up any confusion on my stance, we should get back to Argentina.

After a long frustrating day playing charades and pictionary, I found my home for the night. Wet, hungry, and still recovering from a 20 hour bus ride, I knew it was the right place when the lovely Argentine faces gave me a discount and a beer with my bed, then told me the steak and wine was almost ready if I was. And I was. $7 for all the steak and wine I could handle was just what I needed.

Once settled, I met a couple like-minded travelers, Max and Anaïs. Max was from Germany, Anaïs from France. We start chatting and shortly after I realized how cool my new amigos were, a light bulb goes on. We tell each other our stories, and when it gets to my turn, I share my day. I joke about the not speaking Spanish, then laughingly throw out the ol’ “so if you’re not doing anything tomorrow”… I scan for reactions, for even a spark of consideration… “We’d be happy come translate if you like?” And just like that we’re back in business.

Over a great meal of Argentine meat and wine, we set a time to meet the next morning, nice and early. But for the rest of the night we sat round the table like a Thanksgiving family, catching each other up on the most interesting parts of our lives.

And that my friends, is why you should still travel even when you don’t speak any other languages…

The end.

April 29, 2009   No Comments

Shoes and Horses

7 o’clock came awful early.  And I do mean awful. The alarm sounds-piercing the darkest part of my soul. I frantically scramble to find and stop the torturous beep of my watch which I had attached to the foot of my bed the night before so as not to just push the button and roll over in agitated rebellion. I know what you’re thinking: “7 am? Wow, Derek, you poor thing!” Yeah, yeah-I know for some of you 7 am is almost laughably late and might even be considered sleeping in. But when evening activities carry you consistently to 3 or 4 in the morning, 7 comes too quick.

When I finally remember where my watch is, I stop the alarm, curse the sky and roll out of bed. As usual, my questioning existence fades by the time I get to the shower, where I rinse off any residual irritation, then continue to get ready.

Outside it had showered as well, and the streets of Aires glistened under a blanket of moisture. The skies were grey, dripping with inconsistency, but my spirits were bright. Today would be a good day. Today would be the shoe drop.

I walked to the hotel and entered the lobby where a group of volunteers had arrived the night before from different parts of the world. I introduced myself and realized something very clearly, that is how different my life had become. I had wandered just down the street from my hostel, still soggy, I met a range of people from different places. Several were students, a couple young energetic entrepreneurs, a real estate agent living in Costa Rica, a young man who had once lived on the streets of skid row-now resolved to helping others—but all had roots, homes. They had steady lives, which afforded them several days absence before requiring their return. But each came with purpose, and I was honored to join this group of like-hearted people.

Pepe arrived, spirited as ever. He explained the day’s events including our first disappointment. One shoe drop was canceled due to the rain and in sufficient roads. The shoes, he assured, would be delivered at a later date, in the meantime, we would kill a couple hours with sightseeing before continuing to one of the poorer neighborhoods in Buenos Aires for the other shoe drop.

We piled into a minibus, humming with the energy of a humanitarian summer camp, and after a Starbucks and a couple key sights we arrived. The children were starting to gather outside the meek school building. We organized the boxes by shoe-size, then ushered the children in. One by one, the young Argentines were escorted to a chair. Then if only for a few precious moments, the boy or girl would rest humbly on his or her throne, and as kings and queens we kneeled at their feet, smiled into their eyes, and fitted each with his or her very own, very new pair of shoes. Our knees collected dirt, dirty feet filled clean shoes, and our hearts were warmed.

When we finished, Pepe cheered us back on to the bus and told us of a special treat. Alejo was in small polo tournament outside Buenos Aires, we would close the afternoon with an Argentina past time. During the 1½ hour bus ride, as the weary travelers slept, I kneeled by Pepe, asking details of future projects. With me by his side, Pepe called and confirmed the school and needs with the distant superintendent, then hung up the phone. “He is very excited to have you! I’ll arrange the details and email to you tonight…”

The rest of the afternoon, we sprawled over grassy blades under the cool shade of strong trees watching mighty horses and Argentines speed competitively by. We were the only gringos but it didn’t matter. The contented locals rode, laughed, played this cowboy mix of golf and soccer. As the orange Argentine sun set, the air was sweet and rich. The men gathered sweaty, dirty, happy as they sipped beer in the company of their beautiful adoring wives. I breathed deep and slowly.

It’s hard to say, but I think in this moment under the pink sky, somewhere in the Argentine country, after a day of fitting shoes on tiny feet… I think it was this moment when I fell in love with Argentina.

March 9, 2009   No Comments

Tomorrow’s Shoes

“I just cried… People talk to me, and I cried. People say, ‘Oh Alejo, thank you very much,’ and I just cried… Now I see the documentary and I say, ‘How the hell could I cry so much?!’”

When you hear Alejo tell the story you can’t help but smile. Alejo was a professional polo player in Argentina, that is until he met Blake Mycoskie. Blake was an American between jobs and wanted to learn polo. When the two met, they quickly became friends. Together they conceived the idea of a shoe company, wherein for every pair of shoes purchased, a pair would be given to a child in need. 6 months later, Alejo was moved to tears, when surrounded by thousands of children, each with a new pair of shoes. He saw his dream come true. That was in 2006 and it was the beginning of TOMS Shoes.

TOMS Shoes (short for “Tomorrow’s Shoes”) was an idea born after Blake Mycoskie met a woman doing a shoe drive in South America. Inspired by one woman trying to make a difference and children with a basic need, Blake got the idea. Then the unlikely happened, he ran in to Alejo… again. Blake and Alejo had already met, became friends, and said good-bye not knowing if they would ever see each other again. Blake continued to Florianopolis, Brazil where he looked to learn to sail. Alejo without knowing, was also vacationing in Florianopolis. The two happened into the same bar, in the same hour, on the same day. Alejo convinced Blake to return to Argentina and stay with him, where the idea of TOMS Shoes fostered into reality.

When I contacted Alejo earlier in the year, I had no idea who he or TOMS Shoes was. I was just looking for a project to volunteer with in South America. A friend of a friend, who I met in the Dominican Republic, sent Alejo an email. Three months later I was in Buenos Aires, sitting at the desk of this energetic and barefooted twenty-something, as he introduced me to TOMS and mate, Argentina’s national drink. Over a highly caffeinated cup and a metal straw, he explained the story of TOMS, and how within two years the company had grown to 46 employees and had given away over to 200,000 pairs of shoes.

Then he introduced me to Pepe, his charismatic counterpart responsible for locating areas throughout Argentina where TOMS could donate shoes. We shared stories and I explained the vision of Immediately Pepe started brainstorming, thinking of places, schools, people that I might be able to help with. One place stuck out- a small, secluded school district where the need was great. He would contact the superintendent to offer help.

In the meantime, another opportunity unfolded. As we spoke, an international team of volunteers made their way to Argentina. It was time for the TOMS shoe drop. In two days a small group of people would gather from different parts of the world to help fulfill the vision of TOMS by distributing shoes to Argentine children. I was invited to help.

It amazes me how things can turn around. Three days earlier I walked frustrated streets and saw nothing but dead ends. Now my roads were open with opportunity. And on the same road I discovered are others inspired to serve, ordinary individuals driven to do extraordinary things.

February 17, 2009   6 Comments

Sparks and Fire

When the fires of inspiration fade, sometimes all you need is a spark. My spark was named Mariana, and when I first saw her I expected sparks of a different sort. Pretty, passionate, petite, she is the kind of person you notice enter a room. But there is a big difference between noticing and catcalling, so when Mariana walked by one day and someone blurted out from across the room “Oh Lah Laaaah!”, I did what most people would. I paused, squinted my eyes like I just forgot what I was doing, then turned to watch the sparks and potentially backhands fly. They never did. Mariana smiled, said hello and continued to her desk. What I didn’t realize at this point, was that the nickname for Mariana was “Malala”, which gets shortened to “Lala”, which when used in a Spanish greeting becomes :”Hola, La!” This of course is much more similar in sound than meaning to the abrasive and slightly creepy “Oh Lah Laaaah!” I thought had been said.

I learned quickly thereafter that Lala was a good person to know, especially if you were looking for a ticket out of the country. Granted, I had decided to stay and weather this storm of humanitarian disappointment, but it never hurts know your options, and Uraguay was just one boat ride away. So in my frustrated state, I sought Lala for advice and ticket prices. “Hola, La…” I said-again it went off without a hitch. “How do I get to Uraguay?” With that our friendship began. We talked a bit about boat rides, but before long I realized I had met a person of similar passion. She was well traveled (had even been to Africa), but more importantly had volunteered throughout Argentina. I told her what I was trying to do, and probably vented more than anyone would care to hear. She listened. Then I listened. I watched as her wheels turned and the fire in her eyes grew. “We’ll find something…” she assured as she searched her sources for ideas.

When we finished our conversation, I still hadn’t found a project. But what I did find was renewed hope, and a fire that burned a little brighter. Then things started to happen. I got an email from a company (TOM’s Shoes) that I had contacted while still in the US. It was a lead I assumed was all but dead. I would meet with the founder and his right hand man to discuss my options. But before I had the chance to do that, another opportunity arose. A local volunteer group known as “Voluntario Global” was having an introductory meeting. Anyone interested in working with impoverished kids, or just having a beer and learning about the organization could come. I was interested in both.

I traced cobblestone streets through the oldest bario in Buenos Aires until I arrived at a small pub. Inside a modest and eclectic mix mingled. People from different parts of the world, armed with drinks, sought seats as an Argentine woman prepared in front. Her name is Valeria Gracia. She is the founder and, until this year, director of Voluntario Global. She stood and warmly described a successful year, then the upcoming project.  In one week Voluntario Global would sponsor a party for a large number of children from different parts of the city. I listened, excited about the opportunities unfolding. Then I tracked down Valeria to talk.

Valeria is a charming, confident woman. Her smile is gracious and inviting. That became obvious as one after another, people stopped bye to exchange a departing hug, kiss or smile. Eventually, we found a corner table to talk. She told me the history of Voluntario Global, her years working in a hostel, volunteering off hours in necesitous neighborhoods. She knew the need, and through her job realized there was a group of people with the time, talent and means to help. Eventually Valeria left her job at the hostel and began an organization that invited volunteers to bring their talents to help train, teach and serve both children, and adults. As she spoke, the fires flared. She and her husband have never had kids. “These are like my kids,” she said as she looked across the room at a handful of young adults she had seen grow, and now showed such promise.

I mentioned the fire I saw in her eyes, she smiled humbly. I shared my intentions, goals, and vision. I explained to her that you, the readers, had given money to make a difference, to help fill a need. She shared a few ways I could potentially do that. Finally, I mentioned I still had one last meeting and opportunity before I could commit. She understood and we finished talking as people casually passed by to say good bye. I knew there were needs in Buenos Aires. I knew I had found a solid organization, and I knew that behind it there were genuine hearts hoping to help. What I didn’t know was that there was a need about to unfold that few others knew about.

My plans were about to change.

Voluntario Global:
TOMS Shoes:

January 23, 2009   No Comments


To be honest, I was torn. My week had been filled with an unproductive hope to help and when hope fell false I was ready to run. Not to abandon hope, but to look elsewhere.

The cycle began months earlier, when I started looking for a project or Argentine need to offer myself to. An idea would surface, followed by a rush of excitement, which calmed and faded when nothing came to fruition. Finally I just decided to go, and within an hour of my arrival things were looking up. Before I left the airport I met a girl, split a cab, and learned she was involved with a volunteer group helping children in a less fortunate area of town. She would check with the coordinator, get back with me, and within the week I‘d probably have a place to help.

Encouraged, I spent the next few days getting acquainted with the city. Buenos Aires is a special place. From the moment I climbed into my taxi I felt something I don‘t feel in a lot of American cities–comfortable, almost at home. There is something about it, a charm. On Sundays, you’ll find cobblestone streets covered with cloth and crafts, created by the humble hands making their living.  On quiet streets, you’ll find old walls cased with colorful graffiti, as good if not better than a lot of art I’ve seen in museums. In the air, there is often a distant drumming of people in protest (a common occurrence in Buenos Aires), a fresh and encouraging sound of freedom. There are musicians who play, couples that dance. I roamed the streets, explored the city. Things were good.

Then I heard back from my volunteer friend. The coordinator didn’t think it was a good idea for me to get involved for what would likely be just a couple of weeks. Back to square one. I had made some phone calls but had yet to hear back from anyone. Then the devils of travel began to whisper. Quickly I made friends with other travelers, anxious and eager to see and experience South America, and inviting me to join. We’d go to dinner. We’d have drinks. We would laugh and dance into the morning. But when we walked back to our hostels, the streets were filled with reminders.

There is another face to this city, one obvious but quickly forgotten. One that surfaces when businesses close, and suits go home. While young tourists sort through the streets in search for a party, young families sort through trash in search for survival. At first I thought they were looking for food, then concerned they were looking for receipts or personal information. They were meticulous, focused. As oblivious to the passerby’s, as the passerby’s were to them. I learned later, the trash strewn through the streets was in process of being organized into recyclables, which would then be exchanged for a modest return. It’s a sight rich in metaphor, here sorting through corporate waste was a people who themselves had been discarded, whether by society or circumstance.

Still I was torn. On one hand, I knew there was need. I could see it and wanted to help. On the other, I was no closer to helping than when I started a week ago and the sights of Argentina (and those visiting them) were calling. I decided to stay. I would see this through, and if all I did in the end was buy sandwiches for hungry people, then that’s what I would do.

Fortunately, things once again were about to look up. And it all started with a girl…

December 30, 2008   4 Comments

Buenvinidos Buenos Aires

I’ve been putting off South America because it’s always seemed close and somewhere along the way I developed the idea that I should start far while I’m young, energetic, and handsome then work my way back. There are a few flaws however, to this strategy: First, I think I will always feel younger than I am. Second, ever since the invention of coffee, energy is simply one cup away. Third, I’ll probably always be handsome. And fourth and maybe most significantly, South America is not really that close!

The flight from Newark to Buenos Aires is an approximate 14 hours with a short layover in Houston, where you stop, deboard, and just as the blood gets to your feet, you get back on the plane for the remaining 10.5 hours. To be honest, I hadn’t done my homework at all on South America, Argentina or Buenos Aires. I purchased the Lonely Planet, which is about the size and weight of a cement block, but after sleeping, eating and pleasure reading, the “initial decent” was announced without my even cracking the Lonely Planet block.

But it’s never too late to start doing your homework, albeit standing in line waiting for customs is cutting it close. So I got busy. Casually introducing myself  to everyone in the near vicinity, fishing for clues like a good part of town, transportation into the city, any tips that might be useful to a new non-Spanish speaker in Argentina. Before I got my passport stamped, not only had I met another guy from a town two hours from my Arizonan hometown, I also managed to split a cab with three others to the city where someone was already booked in a notorious hostel.

Unfortunately, my luck slowed a bit. We walked into the hostel, humming with young energy. Music playing. Argentine twenty-somethings dashing back and forth checking in internationals all suited with backpacks. The problem with a popular hostel is that it’s…. well popular. So with no space I hit the streets, walking to the next closet spot… full. Then another, full. Then again. Finally, with shoulders strained and sweat dripping, I found my home for the night. A 14 hour flight and city-wide hike is not necessarily rejuvenating, but when you get to Buenos Aires, you don’t have time to rest.

I tracked down my Arizona friend and we took to the streets. This place is beautiful. I’d heard it called the Paris of South America, and as much as I love Paris I was skeptical, but I can see the relation in architecture. The people are some of the most beautiful I’ve seen in the world. Every menu serves steaks of all type for five to fifteen dollars. Malbec wine starts at one dollar in the supermarket. A liter of local beer, also a dollar. Bus or train-one peso (or approximately 33 US cents).

Within two days, I experienced two amazing things. The first came walking down the streets just after sunset. Apparently it was a national holiday. One large street was closed and along the stretch of pavement stood several stages. Musicians played their Latin beats. At their feet danced hundreds of couples, but not just any dance… the Tango. Rumors of the sensual swerving all proved true. To watch an elderly man, bathed in music and emotion, take his lovely wife into his arms… pause to synchronize their souls to sound, then move fluidly, sensually, flawlessly across an ordinary street-I was moved to watch.

The second experience was equally moving but on another level. Buenos Aires is known for its late nights, and on one of these late nights I was walking along a major road when I noticed a line of people ahead of me. The queue stretched half a block. The people were dirty, frazzled, but patient. I walked to the side. When I finally reached the front, the reason was revealed. Squatted down in front of a just-closed McDonald’s, one man shoveled through two large bags of food. Hamburgers, fries, chicken sandwiches, he orderly passed out the food to those waiting patiently… hungrily.

I’ve been asked before why I like to travel. Growing up in a town of 2,500 residents, I met people who had never left the confines and comforts of “home”. When you grow up like this, your view of the world is no wider than the frame that holds the pictures others have taken. The world is black and white. But since I’ve traveled, I see there is more. And the more I see, the more colorful my life becomes.  Why do I travel? Because in one moment, on a random street in Argentina I’ll see a picture of love I’ve never seen before. Then two streets and one night later, another moment happens and I have a glimpse into a life I may never understand. And when I take a moment and stand back to look at life as I would a brilliant painting, I see colors vibrant and darker than I ever knew existed… but I see life.

I came to Argentina to find a need, and if possible fill it. Well within days of my arrival I was assured of one thing… the need is here.

December 15, 2008   1 Comment

A Moment To Remember

New York City, New York.

Yesterday was cold and spitting. Today, the sun overcame. Light fell across the city like golden ropes through a dirty sky. Beams dropped to dark streets and a grey river that swam round our Lady Liberty. She held her torch high, as an orphan raises a cup for rice. Eventually, the sun took notice pouring its warmth over our national icon. Seagulls squealed in delight dashing in and out of the fallen light.

Today is my anniversary. Exactly, one year ago today, almost to the hour, myself and an old friend from college pulled anchor and sailed East, ready to see and change the world. With every wave, we moved further from our old lives, our families, all that was familiar. The sails were high. Our goals were higher. Weeks earlier I called Dan from Flagstaff, Arizona. We spoke of dreams, adventure, boundaries. I left the establishment of comfort and security including a great job in Sales and Marketing and started this new chapter of life.

The boat glided up, then down, and continued to repeat as the sun dropped below the land etched on the western horizon. It was a beautiful sunset. Then darkness fell and like a child stripped of his nightlight, tension grew. Unlike Dan, I had never sailed before, not a day(or night) in my life. Everything was new. The sea was darker and bigger than I’d ever known. I took the first shift to sleep ( a routine we would practice for months to come). In the galley of this 33 foot boat, I laid on my back in the middle of the floor, the lowest point in the boat to minimize the motion. In my berth, was born every doubt and fear of a new sailor and life. Eventually I slept, only to be woken for my shift.

My bloodless hands squeezed the tiller. Every mistake and overcorrection was emphasized with the battering of sails asking to be filled. Every large wave raised larger fear, and unaware of the self-correcting tendencies of a sailboat the thought of capsizing was often and real. 15 hours later we reached the Bahamas, greeted with subtle seas. The sun that hours before abandoned me returned full, bright and warm. In retrospect it was a fairly mild sail, but as my first, it will be remembered as long and threatening.

One year and 16 countries later I am sitting in a coffee shop in Manhattan, thinking. I am a changed man. I think it is impossible to see so many cultures, places, so many people different from you and not come out different yourself. Yet not all has changed. I sit here with the same burning to “do” something. Not just see, not just taste–Do! There is so much to do in this world. There are so many needs unseen and untended to. I don’t pretend to be a “savior”, if anything I understand how much larger these challenges are than myself. But I am still convinced, I can do something. I can make some kind of a difference.

I battle to balance real with ideal. But doesn’t every intended change began with a dream? I don’t know what the future holds. I guess nobody does. There a lot of things up in the air. There are things I’d hoped to have accomplished by now. There are things I still hope to. I was recently able to return home, to see family and laugh with friends. It was comfortable and familiar… nice. Yet there is still more. I would like to return home, to visit my family, to hold my beautiful niece on her first Christmas. But before I do, I want to “do” at least one more thing.

In the past year, many of you have dug deep, in a hurting economy, and donated money that impacted several lives. We still have some of that money left. I have in the past months contacted several organizations to locate a need. To my frustration, several of those requested a significant amount to “volunteer” with an organized group. I understand there are costs to organize, and applaud these companies for the many good things they are doing. However, I can’t help but think we can stretch these precious dollars further. I am going to try to do just that.

With no specific need or contact I will travel to South America, to the 8th largest country in the world Famous for steak, wine, and tango, I will look for a person, a group, a need. I don’t know how or who, but I don’t think it will be too hard to find something, or someone who has fallen on tough times. And with the last of the monies raised, we are going impact somebody’s life.

Argentina… here I come.

December 2, 2008   3 Comments

Strawberry. American. Proud.

There was a moment the other night when I realized no one was saying anything. I paused, looked around. It was one of those moments when you look back and recall “where you were when.” It was history in the making.

Even as a traveler I knew this election was one for the books. Of course, I wasn’t inundated with the yearlong barrage of campaign ads most Americans were. But the key points did make international headlines: Barrack defeats Hillary, McCain chooses Palin, neck and neck campaigning.  I suppose much of that is normal, but I could tell the world was watching especially close. “Who’s going to win?” was always the immediate follow-up to my exposed citizenship. Even in the most remote African village I visited, people felt inclined to share they were “praying for Obama.”

Presidentially, the race was historic-personally, it was against time. I am registered in Flagstaff, Arizona, so I knew I had to there by November 4th to exercise my right to vote. However, there were a couple things I needed to tend to first, and both were in different parts of the country.

I spent the week prior with family in Southern Oregon, where times are tough. Finances are tight; life is, to say the least, less than ideal. My days were filled with meetings that including mortgage brokers, family members and piles of papers explaining reverse mortgage options for an elderly couple: two people whose income is hardly enough to meet the demands of their house payments. I was present to ask questions for them, and for me, to make sure two of the most loving and loved people in my life were not taken advantage of. Not a place you really want to be. However, we found comfort in each other and stood on the knowledge that, no matter how difficult times got, we were still very blessed.

After several days and a reasonable understanding, my travels continued to San Francisco. A beautiful city known for its rolling hills, cloud covered landscapes, and according to several sources one of the finest Halloween spots in America. That, of course, was all I needed to hear. Pressed for time, I did the first thing I knew to prepare, I went to the Salvation Army-in some small town off an Oregonian highway where I found my costume or to be more accurate-my costume found me. The Super Berry had been born!

I arrived San Francisco at noon on Halloween Day. Perhaps it was felt berry (most likely made for 7 year old). Perhaps it was the tight green and red pants, which maintained its modesty with a leafy diaper. Maybe it was the strawberry cape, or sandy superhero wig with complimentary mustache, or the black dish-gloves modified to spray whipped cream on command. Whatever it was, there was no finer “Super Berry” in all of San Fran. Children wanted to shake hands, as they pointed and yelled “Strawberry…” with star-studded gaze. Drag queens wanted to bump chests. Ladies wanted their pictures taken. Somehow Super Berry even got access a San Fran doctors’ 80’s party.

With the clock ticking and having effectively put the “awe” back into “strawberry”. I boarded my flight for Phoenix. Unfortunately, Phoenix is still 2 hours from Flagstaff, where I had to vote. I turned to Craigslist. At 4:30 pm, voting day, I climbed into the truck of a young man just enlisted in the Army and on his way to New Mexico to spend a couple days with family before going to boot camp. He was kind enough to drop me off at the door of my voting station, and with 15 minutes left, I made my voice known.

That brings me back to “the moment”. Like millions of others, I sat with friends around the television and watched as the results pored in. Some were happy, some vocally concerned, but we all watched as history was made. McCain was first to speak and whether you voted for him or not, you watched as a proud American, humbly and respectfully conceded both his love for his country and his position in history in one of the most gracious concession speeches I have ever seen.

Moments later the room fell silent.  We watched as the new face of America-strong, focused, black- stood tall between bulletproof glass walls. We watched as he spoke of the challenges of the past and the hopes ahead. And whether you voted for him or not, it was a special moment. It was in that moment that I paused… I looked across the room and saw every eye glued to the unprecedented image before us. The same image that filled households throughout the United States and the rest of the world.

I sat and watched as just engulfed as my neighbors. In that moment…after month and months of traveling the world, after seeing different people in different cultures with different governments, I was reminded of what we have. Where a man, with modest roots yet drive and vision, stood before a crowd, a country, a world and accepted the challenge to lead. In that moment… I was proud to be an American.

November 20, 2008   3 Comments

Derek Sissy Pants

Welp, it’s official. I just confirmed it. I am a sissy. A big soft-hearted pansy. The kind we all made fun of in elementary school. Yep, that’s me. You know how I know? I just got done watching…uhm, you’re gonna have to bear with me. It’s a little bit embarrassing and to be honest I’m in sort of an emotional and vulnerable state right now. I just got done watching a romantic comedy… There, I said it. And you’re right, I do feel better. But still, it’s not exactly something I’m proud of. Neither my being a sissy pants nor that I watched a chic flick… and liked it.

I’m sitting in a plane on the way back from a month in Africa writing a blog when I decide I’d take a break and entertain myself with what would undoubtedly be another one of those crappy flix that leave you wondering why you decided to watch a movie instead of sleeping, writing, reflecting, or scratching your eyes out (all of which are better options than the feeling you get at the end of 2 hours of a predictably bad plot supported with terrible acting).

So there I am vulnerably sorting out all the sights and emotions of my time in Africa, when BOOM out of nowhere I find myself wrapped up in an airline blanky, giggling underneath my foamy earphones. Yes, I figured it was a chick flick. However, I totally thought I’d turn it off after 15 minutes to catch up on some z’s. I did not expect to get involved. And I definitely didn’t expect to find myself sighing inwardly like you might do after dropping a girl off from a date that went surprisingly well.

Luckily, I have both a window seat and my own row. Good I have my own row because there’s a fair chance that half way through this shameful treat I would have gotten all snuggly with the old lady sleeping next to me. Which obviously would have been weird for the old lady, me and everyone else in the plane. The window seat also came in handy when at the end of the movie the heart strings were gettin’ tugged on, and as I got a rocks in my throat was able to look out the window. Don’t worry I didn’t actually cry-I said I was sissy not a girl.

You know I used to be the realist who acknowledged that not all babies are cute. Yes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and every parent thinks their child adorable, but that doesn’t mean it’s true. Or at least it didn’t, until recently. Suddenly, I’m standing in a crowd of snot-crusted, dirty orphans with soars all over their bodies thinking to myself, “Now that is adorable!”. I’m not sure what’s happening to me.

Like I said, I’m not proud of it. I don’t know when or how this all started. It might have been on the boat when after days and days at sea you begin to think than anything breathes and has opposable thumbs is beautiful. Whatever the case, I do know one thing, the first step to recovery is admitting the problem.

So that’s why I, Derek Preston Turner, am here to say, I… am a sissy pants…

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to rest. But first I might just see what’s playing…

October 24, 2008   9 Comments

By Lantern’s Light

Nightfall had long chased all color from the Kenyan sky. With the moon missing, there was nothing to separate the stars in the sky from the lanterns on lake, so they ran together. We had just finished another amazing dinner prepared by my friend’s creative hands. Amazing both in taste and process. (I’ll never understand how a cinnamon loaf, which would put to shame any Starbucks’ danish can emerge from a coal heated pot? However, there are some things in life you simply accept…and then ask for seconds.)

Tummy’s full, we all sat content watching as lake flies and an occasional beetle beat curiously into the lone bulb that dangled from the tin roof. The air had cooled. The night was peaceful-until I heard something rustling outside. My eyes turned to the front door which was open for the breeze. Then rustling mixed with whispers… I watched the door. I waited for something to immerge from the darkness. Then I saw the whites of eyes… knock, knock.

From the darkness came a voice. “Derek…my mother is calling for you to come.” I walked to the door and looked out. 5-6 pairs of eyes watched, and giggled. They were children, and once my eyes adjusted I could see the familiar faces were those I had recently spent the afternoon with. “We are going to dance for you…” one boy said. I grabbed my headlamp without a moment’s pause.

A parade of Kenyan children and two friends, we marched down the dirt path to the house we once sat outside discussing our different lives. The kids were noticeably fascinated with my headlamp and excited to once again see the camcorder hanging from my shoulder. We approached the house, then entered. Inside, a small homemade lantern dimly lit the room. “We want to dance for you,” said the widow I recently sat with, smiling as bright as the flame we gathered around.

The house was small, simple and though made of dirt-clean. It was one room split into two by system of hanging cloth. We sat round a small table on humble chairs. Then the show began. The children lined up, giggling, bumping into each other as they prepared for their performance. One started modestly and with the cue an explosion of voices. They sung as you might expect African children to sing. Loud, strong, full of conviction. Each had his or her part. One would take the lead, the others echo in support. Then another would sing a verse. Occasionally, one would forget the words, smile and look to the others until they remembered.

Songs, poems, dances the children shared excitedly. I watched with unending smile, thinking to myself occasionally, “I have to remember that dance move…” as a child would balance on tip-toes bouncing his knees together, arms swimming through the air. They sang. They laughed. They entertained until finally the mother said it was time for bed. Pleading for more, they compromised with a song of thanks and when finished we stood and offered our own. Thanks that is, not song.

My friends and I fired up the headlamps and walked back up the rocky road. “I’ve never seen that before,” stated my friend who had lived there for three years. She was just as amazed as I was at what we had just witnessed. There was no question we had been a part of something special. But remarkable as it was, what stood out at the end of the night was the familiarity.

The setting was different. We were in a mud house. Kids were without shoes, the house without power, but I had seen this many times before. Children laughing, shy (initially) to perform for strangers. And though there were no clocks, you still had that recognizable excitement of kids staying up past their bed times and a mother forgiving at first but finally firm, prompting her children to rest.

It’s a theme I’ve noticed in my travels. A theme of humanity. And not get all Bob Marley on you, but it really is amazing how similar we are to each other-no matter how different the setting. That said, this whole night…you know the whole personal performance of African children, singing and dancing in a mud house… yeah, it was pretty unique.

October 7, 2008   2 Comments