16 December 2008

Saludos from Mexico!

What a change from blustery, below-freezing Boston. We flew into Puerto Vallarta, Mexico (via Los Angeles), last night, and the pilot said the weather was about 83F as we were landing. What a change from what I described to my mom as 'colder than a freezer.'

Puerto Vallarta is a touristy, resorty stretch of beautiful beaches, and we tend to fly in and immediately drive away. Last night, we went to Sayulita for an outdoor taco dinner. Sayulita is about half an hour away and a picture-perfect little town, complete with cobblestone streets, tiny storefronts and perfect waves for surfing. I haven't checked Lonely Planet, but I would guess that it's listed as a backpacker haven. We saw signs for 'Revolucion Tacos' as we drove in, probably of backpacker travel guide fame.

Is Sayulita charming? Absolutely. It could easily be a movie backdrop, and there is no bad angle from which to photograph postcards and photos for friends. The thatched roof over us as we ate dinner was exactly as one would dream of it being; the tables were beautiful slices of tree trunk balanced on delicate black wrought iron stands. Everything about the tacos was handmade from scratch-- the tortillas, the toppings, and the meat was grilled right next to us. Yum. What was jarring was that most of the people walking around were American. Young Americans with surfboards, American families with little children and slightly older, American hippies.

After dinner, we drove another half an hour away from Puerto Vallarta to Lo de Marcos, a sleepy little fishing town (population about 1000), where my partner's parents have chosen to retire. Here, there are also a few foreigners, but it feels much more authentically Mexican. This morning, we took a walk on the beach, and we saw a few blowfish, a pelican, and a huge stingray (diameter about 14") that had washed up onto the shore. Black vultures were pecking away at the stingray but hopped away as we approached. (This would never happen near a resort.) We saw one couple as we walked away from the house and two more as we returned, and we greeted all of them with a smile and a 'Buenos dias' as we passed.

I enjoyed how deserted the beach was, and it made me (selfishly) wish no one else would come along. Of course, I don't agree with private beaches and think that Mexico does a good job of keeping its beaches accessible to all (at least in the places I've been), and it's silly to notice that the three couples we passed were foreigners-- because so were we.

I inquired as to how the locals felt about all of these Americans moving down to Mexico, and it sounded familiar: The Americans kept to themselves, the Mexicans kept to themselves, and there was a little mixing at the edges. (Venn diagrams come to mind.) The Mexicans were happy that the Americans brought money down with them, but there wasn't that much blending of cultures. Not yet (on the individual level), anyway.

Posting will probably be on hold through the holiday season, but stay tuned-- I'll be back with stories from Chile, Argentina and Uruguay when I return. Happy December!

13 December 2008

Shopping, packing and traveling

As the hectic season approaches, where everyone scrambles to get everything done, I wish you luck, deep breaths and some happy surprises.

My partner and I will be traveling with limited internet access, so posts may be more sporadic during the rest of the month, but I'll do the best I can.

In the meantime, here is a metta prayer for you (metta = loving kindness, and dukkha = suffering). It is over 2600 years old, but I think it is still quite relevant today.

May you be well and happy.
May you be free from danger.
May you be free from worry.
May you be free from anger.
May you be free from dukkha.
May your mind be free from hatred.
May your heart be filled with love.
May no difficulties come to you.
May no harm come to you.
May you have mental happiness.
May you have physical happiness.
May you find peace of mind.

Happy holidays!

12 December 2008

Money for everyone!

It's brilliant. Kiva. It's mindblowing how little money is really needed to make a huge impact in the lives of others. Kiva is a micro-lending website that allows regular people (a.k.a., you and me) to lend as little as $25 to someone trying to start up their own business in the developing world. Apparently, more than 98% of the loans are paid back, and I'm not wealthy by U.S. standards, but I wouldn't be very upset if I lost $25 taking a chance on an entrepreneur trying to better herself and her family/community. Women seem to benefit the most from this project--and not just in wealth, but in empowerment and self-confidence. As if that weren't reason enough to celebrate, here are journals of the women describing how their lives have changed.

I love how internet + great idea (available to everyone) = no more middle man.

11 December 2008

Studying fair trade = heavy stuff

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, and this is really going to be a buzzkill. But, as people start to shop for the holidays, this is something to keep in mind. I just had lunch with a new friend, a friend of two of my wonderful, old friends in San Francisco, and she's getting a Ph.D. in political science, focused on fair trade. It sounds great-- oh, awesome, you help farmers and craftspeople, right? Well, it isn't quite that simple, unfortunately.

She told us about her work in India and how she was immensely underwhelmed by the working conditions of so-called 'fair trade' factories. Finally, her colleagues said she wouldn't believe what conditions were really like unless she saw them with her own eyes. So, she posed as a potential buyer and was able to enter five different sweatshops owned by the mafia. I am at a total loss as to how this happened, but she was also able to photograph and talk (through a translator) with the children. She took many photos of the products and then snuck other photos in. This was no small task, as others who had tried to uncover the real working conditions had their rooms broken into-- some even ended up with broken knees.

What she saw in the sweatshops explained the secrecy and brutality: children were literally being chained to their stations, where they worked 12-16 hours per day, seven days per week. Children were breaking mirrors with their bare hands to make mosaic Christmas ornaments, mixing toxic dyes and glues with their bare hands to make other Christmas ornaments and inhaling glass and other unhealthy fumes with no protection whatsoever. She saw five sweatshops, and all of the workers were little boys. And where were the little girls? Not in school or at home, but working as sex slaves on the streets. (Sorry. I did warn you that this would be depressing.)

We were told that unless a carpet said specifically that it wasn't made by children, it probably was. And that this was probably true for most handicrafts. One would like to think that if parents and families knew how their young were being treated, they would be outraged and put an end to it. The truth is that families are making $500 a year with both parents and all of the children working--and just barely scraping by. A six-year-old girl had developed a heavy cough from working in a glass bracelet factory, and when someone gently told the father that she would likely die before she was even old enough to marry (which could be as young as fifteen), he said, 'Let her die.'

What a sad world scarcity and lack creates. I bet most parents in the US could never imagine saying that about their child.

What my friend proposes is that rather than having child labor be illegal, legalize and strictly monitor it. Apparently, there are dozens of NGOs who have the resources to help, but if they step in and clean up the broken glass and vomit in the sweatshops, they are responsible for aiding and abetting child-labor sweatshops.

So, where does this leave us, as consumers with almighty dollars to spend? We can't save every child who is suffering in a sweatshop, and if we stop buying all handicrafts, people who need the income will be out of work. Rather disheartening, isn't it? My new friend felt bad that she'd laid such heavy information on me, but it behooves us to know what causes we're supporting.

So, yes, it may be a little more expensive to buy non-child-labor products, but it does seem to be a good thing to do. Shopping at places like Ten Thousand Villages. Buying work you know was created by an adult. Buying fewer things that last longer. In short, the same old mantra: reduce, reuse, recyle. Right. I know the shopaholics are biting their nails, eyes darting from side to side, wondering, 'What will I do?' Well, the haunting images of those little fingers of children slaving away should help. Yes, it's depressing, but this kind of thing just doesn't look as beautiful as it used to...

10 December 2008

Fighting with loved ones

It really stinks, but it happens to the best of us. Ideally, it happens only very rarely, but many argue that a complete lack of fighting is just as unhealthy as too much fighting. Do you agree?

I think healthy fighting means no slamming doors, calling each other foul names or bringing up things from ancient history, and generally being respectful. It means sticking to the subject at hand and working together to come to an agreement. It all sounds so easy and so obvious when one is level-headed, but it can quickly go out the window when emotions bubble up. Yeah, yeah, we need to take deep breaths and pause a second before responding-- we've all heard those nuggets before. As I get older, though, and I actually try to practice breathing and pausing (and I have by no means perfected this), I see it does work.

Another key I think is important is calling someone on something you aren't crazy about right away. If someone is exhibiting behavior that you think isn't particularly kind, I've learned to say, 'That isn't very nice.' When I was younger and didn't have an easy, standby sentence, I would either retaliate (bad idea) or be stunned into silence (also not very effective).

One of my newer girlfriends has really mastered this: she is incredibly sweet, but she doesn't let anyone steamroll her or disrespect her. I think it is quite a challenge to be nice and equally strong and respected. Many women think they have to be like Hillary Clinton or generally exhibit traditionally 'male' traits in order to be successful, but many argue that a new generation of 'feminine' leaders are what's really needed.

Linguistics professor Deborah Tannen addresses this issue in her classic book, You Just Don't Understand, which discusses the differences between how men and women communicate and argues that men are more competitive and women are more cooperative. She provides illuminating and often comedic examples of how men will try to one-up each other both in telling stories and in life and how women are so determined to be on the same page, they will interrupt each other to agree. (I am still working on that.)

I guess, at the end of the day, as long as we, men and women alike, can get through the arguments still respecting and caring about each other, we should all come out stronger, wiser and better at not repeating the same mistakes again in the future.

09 December 2008

Entertainment industry inspiration: two men

I was asked recently who my real-life male and female role models were, and I was sad to say I didn't really have a real-life female role model. I know a lot of people say their mother or grandmother, and yes, I am impressed by how strong my mother is-- but I don't want to follow in her footsteps or live her life. It isn't that a role model is only someone whose life you want to live, per se, but I do think that is a part of the equation. The two men who come to mind, and maybe this is because I am writing full-time now, are both in entertainment.

The most recent one happens to be the president of music at a major studio now, but it is his journey that inspires me, not the destination. He graduated from college and started a band in New York. He wrote music, performed music and produced music-- he lived music every day and never gave up. He said he wasn't precious about which assignments he took, which was a great lesson for me, and he thought his creative and musical lives were over when he was writing music for animated singing animals. But, as luck would have it, his talents did not go unnoticed, and he won awards and acclaim for his work, and over the years, has built a solid and esteemed reputation for himself. His advice to me was to simply do what I loved, and he is the reason I am a full-time writer now. Had I been thinking about it before I met him? Of course. Had I even written full-time before? Sure, in spurts between other projects. But this time, I said, 'This is it. This is what I'm doing from now on, and that's it-- come what may.'

The other man who inspires me is a successful screenwriter, and again, it is not his destination but his journey that impresses me. He's a gay, Canadian Jew, and he had to marry his partner in Canada to be a legitimate and legal couple (don't get me started). He financially supported two boys in Latin America and put one through medical school and the other through law school and goes to visit them regularly. I find that many young people are very enthusiastic about community service and love to garnish already impressive CVs with their philanthropic contributions, but not that many working professionals continue to be so generous. I am especially impressed with my screenwriting friend because most people have no idea he has done this-- he will never get any award or recognition for it. He does it because he wants to create more opportunity in the world, because he wants to empower young, talented people and because he is generally a wonderful human being.

I hope that when I lay on my deathbed, I will have taken the lessons of these two men with me: push myself to follow my passion and pursue it professionally to the best of my ability, and never forget to give back to the world that has provided so much.

08 December 2008

Dream job or dream location?

I know they're not necessarily mutually exclusive, but if they were, and you had to choose, would you pick your dream job in a so-so location or a so-so job in an amazing place?

For example, would you rather be a painter in industrial Siberia or a paper clip bender in French Polynesia? Just curious. Well, all right, that isn't true. My partner and I are trying to decide where to go next, and it's an exciting time of having full freedom to go anywhere we want. The good news is that we'll be fine wherever we end up, and wherever we don't go, we can always visit, etc. The fear is that by choosing one place, we eliminate other choices.

We don't want to run out of time and have spent the rest of our lives waiting to go to the next place. So, I guess that just made it very clear. Writing is amazing like that. Thanks. (Translation: don't settle-- go to a place we know we'll be happy.)

Like waiting for a life partner, you don't wait for someone who is impossibly perfect to come falling into your arms, but you also don't give up until you find someone who you know will make you happy.

I once heard that you should pick three non-negotiables, and stick to those and let everything else slide. For example, if all you wanted were washboard abs, an amazing hairdo and culinary skills to rock your world (not that compatible with the six-pack abs, I realize), then you can't be that picky about, say, their soccer skills.

So, what are your non-negotiables for a life partner? What about for the place you choose to live? For a life partner, I said nice, intelligent and with compatible humor. For the place I'll live next, my partner says safe, access to metropolitan life and with summer weather at least part of the year. I'd say aesthetically pleasing (preferably near some kind of water), culturally diverse (ideally, international) and with good travel opportunities. You?

07 December 2008

Make mistakes! Lots of them!

"I like them to talk nonsense. That's man's one privilege over all creation. Through error you come to the truth! I am a man because I err! You never reach any truth without making fourteen mistakes and very likely a hundred and fourteen." - Fyodor Dostoevsky

"A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing." - George Bernard Shaw

"Mistakes are the portals of discovery." - James Joyce

"Nowadays most people die of a sort of creeping common sense, and discover when it is too late that the only things one never regrets are one's mistakes." - Oscar Wilde

"Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep." - Scott Adams

"Mistakes are part of the dues one pays for a full life." - Sophia Loren

05 December 2008

John Wesley quotes

"Catch on fire with enthusiasm and people will come for miles to watch you burn."

"Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can."

"When I have money, I get rid of it quickly, lest it find a way into my heart."

"Think and let think."

"Beware you be not swallowed up in books! An ounce of love is worth a pound of knowledge."

04 December 2008

Mr. Smart. Really.

I was traveling yesterday and didn't have internet access. It almost made me wish I had a crackberry or iphone. Almost.

Anyway, I met a man named Professor Smart last night. Smart is a pretty awesome family name, I thought, especially for someone in academia-- and then he told me his mother's last name: Best. Now, I know Freakonomics gives an example of two brothers named Winner and Loser and how Winner turns out to be more of a loser and Loser turns out to be a winner. But, still, being the son of Mr. Smart and Ms. Best must be pretty awesome. (And Professor Smart was funny to boot.)

He also shared a nice story about when he was in DC. It was pouring rain, and he saw a man in a very nice suit. He stopped to emphasize how one could tell when another man wore a nice suit and when someone wore a really nice suit. This man was wearing the latter, and he had an equally impressive umbrella. Ahead of the fancy man was a woman and her child braving the torrential downpour, and the man simply passed his umbrella to the woman without a word and hurried off.

Professor Smart remarked that the fancy man would never see his umbrella again, had ruined his really nice suit and didn't even stop to accept a thank you. Pretty cool.

02 December 2008

Red state, blue state...

My partner and I got to explore a little of the midwest this past Thanksgiving, and it reminded me of domestic stereotypes: east coast, west coast, midwest and so on. Like Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State, which argues that, politically, socio-economic status determines more than race. If you're interested in figuring out where you fall, here is a chart that can give you an idea. How important do you think class is? Some students and I were discussing race last week, and one said that race was passé now and that the new hot button issue would be same sex marriage. Do you agree?

I don't think of 'class' often, but it reminds me of a guy I was friends with in college. When I had decided to go to grad school to get a degree in education, I asked him if he thought we would still be friends if I were a teacher and he were a big-shot biotech gazillionaire. His response was that we could still be friends but that our new friends would be different-- because I would be at home playing Scrabble while he was falconeering in Mongolia. I remember thinking that I might be happier playing board games with loved ones rather than killing birds for sport near Siberia. I guess everyone has different priorities. And we were both from 'blue states,' too.

01 December 2008

Traveler vs. tourist

Who knew that there were so many strong feelings on this subject?

"Tourists don't know where they've been. Travelers don't know where they're going." - Paul Theroux

"The traveler sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see." - G. K. Chesterton

"A good traveler has no fixed plan, and is not intent on arriving." - Lao-Tzu

"Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

"We want fewer, but higher-paying guests than before. Backpackers spend almost nothing, stay for a long time, and stir up the Tibetans against us. We definitely do not want them." - Senior tourist official in Chengdu as quoted in South China Morning Post

Cheers to being a traveler, open to any adventure that should come along. Here are some great tips.