Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Monday, October 29, 2012

Behind the Bus

There are days when the pace is so fast, when there are so many things to finish and turn in, so many places to be and people to meet with, that essentials like eating, remembering your key, or putting on a dash of mascara go by the wayside. Those days when, no matter how fast you move or how many things you accomplish, you're still behind. All day spent running just 2 seconds behind the bus.

That's today. Today's been full of meetings, classes, finishing and submitting a paper, more classes, forgotten assignments, and a backlog of club emails that need to be sent. A friend called me who's depressed and wants to grab dinner. Skype dates, and phone dates, and siblings texting due to frustrations. Roommates relentlessly tease since I didn't go drinking with them on the weekend and spend too much time studying in my room or talking with the boyfriend. Work keeps scheduling me, filling every last spare hour I have...while coworkers desperately text asking for emergency coverage.

Stop! There are days when I just want to curl up in a little ball and hide from the world. I have no more pep-talks to give, no more optimism to share, no more energy to spend. I want to be a hermit. I want to watch the fog roll of the ocean, drink my coffee, and actually READ for my classes. And go to bed on time. And not feel like I'm going to die every time I wake up.

Gotta go. I'm late to class.

Words that sing

“You can say anything you want, yessir, but it's the words that sing, they soar and descend...I bow to them...I love them, I cling to them, I run them down, I bite into them, I melt them down...I love words so much...The unexpected ones...The ones I wait for greedily or stalk until, suddenly, they drop...”
― Pablo Neruda

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

I sit at my desk, steaming chamomile tea in one hand and a pen in the other. Papers are scattered around with sticky notes peaking through dog-eared pages. George Winston tries to ease my thoughts as I wade through Machiavellian theory. Cruel, pragmatic and heartless, his political advice is chilling and this paper is turning out to be harder than I expected. Not because of the length or complexity of the prompt, but rather the emotional level is literally giving me goosebumps.

We're supposed to compare Miguel Angel Asturias' El Presidente to Machiavelli's The Prince to uncover cunning dictatorial strategies so prevalent in 20th century Latin America. El Presidente is beautifully written; the translated Spanish is magical and written in a confusingly breathtaking style that overwhelms the reader with the tormented psychology of a tyrannized society. Using a combination of magical realism, onomatopoeias, Mayan myth, and dizzying repetition, Asturias paints a devastating portrait of Guatemalan political culture under the rule of Gustavo Cabrera. The characters are real, the torture haunting, and the fictitious storyline full of hope and heartbreak. It definitely deserves the Nobel Prize it received.

But I'm here struggling to write. I haven't figured out how to separate my emotions from my studies. It's one thing to read books and accounts and then robotically regurgitate them into a neat, organized 7-page paper for some starving graduate student to read at 2am. It's called jumping through the hoops of an undergraduate career; analyze the book by throwing in a couple buzzwords from lecture and show that you actually did the reading. But the separation of heart and mind is hard for me. While these characters are inventions of Asturias' memory, the pain felt by their historical counterparts was real. All around the world pain continues to be real. Why am I sitting at a desk writing theoretical criticisms when there are people not-so-many thousands of miles away suffering?

I know the answers and I know why I'm here. Sitting at this desk. Writing this paper. It's the microlevel solution to greater, macro-level goal. I don't want to be here, but to get there you need training, knowledge, and oftentimes letters behind your name so policy makers and leaders will actually listen.

Still. I'm frustrated with reading about torture and injustice...and then simply sitting here writing a paper no-one will ever care about 2 weeks from now. In order to get a good grade and GPA that those suffering won't actually care about either.

"The streets were a tunnel of shadows. Sometimes they would be woken from their deepest dreams by the cries of an idiot who had last his way in the Plaza de Armas. Or sometimes by the tramp of a patrol, belaboring a political prisoner as they dragged him along, while women followed wiping away the blood-stains with handkerchiefs soaked in tears. Sometimes by the snores of scabby valetudinarian, or the heavy breathing of a pregnant deaf-mute, weeping with fear of the child she felt in her womb. But the idiot's cry was the saddest of all. It rent the sky." -Asturias, El Presidente

Thursday, October 18, 2012


An old post, but I'm missing "my" refugees.

His lips were tightly pursed as his callused fingers gripped the pencil. His brow furrowed in concentration as he slowly wrote the letter "s". It was curvy and difficult and in his intense effort the pencil slipped, leaving a dark, jagged streak on the notepaper. Rows and rows of large, shaky letters lined the paper. He'd been practicing the alphabet for near three hours; his dedication a combination of pride and determination. He grumbled in Karen as he erased his fumbled "s", frustrated at himself and the stubborn curvy letter.

I quietly watched him as he worked. A Karen refugee in his mid-60s, Pablat has seen pain; his scarred hands and premature wrinkles bear testimony to it. CNN dubbed the conflict in Burma a "forgotten story", yet the civil war there has continued since WWII, making it the longest-running armed conflict in the world. Hundreds of thousands of Karen have been forced from their homes, most have lived in refugee camps their entire lives. A lucky few are allowed to relocate to the US; Pablat to San Diego. As a branch of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), we offer english classes to refugees like Pablat and on Monday our little classroom was crammed with 67 refugees. The room quickly filled with Burmese, Somali, and Iraqi chatter, but silenced as soon as the teacher began to speak. They are dedicated and eager to learn; the room quiets as 67 pencils begin to write.

Completely illiterate, Pablat's never held a pencil in his life. The learning curve is daunting at best. We work through the alphabet one letter at a time and I realize 26 is a lot of letters. I am suddenly aware of how difficult our language can be, our letters look and sound the same to the struggling learner. I realize how confusingly similar "b", "d", "p", "c", "e", "g" are and explaining the difference between "m" and "n" results in exasperation on both sides.

We work on the alphabet for hours and he slowly fills numerous sheets with the letters. He's determined to know their names too; he stops every couple minutes to recite the alphabet, one foreign letter at a time. For a change in pace, I write his name on the top of his paper. P-a-b-l-a-t. I slowly say each letter as I write. I point at the word, point at him; "Pablat". It takes a second, but he suddenly realizes what the word means and his eyes fill with tears. He beams as he takes my pencil and traces the word, whispering his name. He writes his name for the first time and we're both speechless; it's an incredible, beautiful moment.

Totally worth the countless hours more.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Paranoid and the Plague

There's a massive public health book above my bed that I stay up waaay too late every night reading. At 800 pages I could totally use it to lift weights with, but instead I just enjoy nerdy adrenaline rushes at 1am. Sleep deprivation vs. muscle. But with chapters like "Lassa, Ebola, and the Developing World's Economic and Social Policies", "Urban Centers of Disease", and "The Interactions of Poverty, Poor Housing, and Social Despair with Disease"...I mean, really, how can you not?

Problem is, for the last two weeks, every day has been a bout with exhaustion and nausea. Not a cool combo. And while this book is fascinating (and probably contributing to the exhaustion), it's not helping my psychological coping mechanisms.  The other night I was convinced it was Bolivian hemorrhagic fever, or meningococcal disease...or maybe cancer. After more hypochondriac self-diagnosis, it's probably just a vitamin B deficiency.

But yeah, heads up: if you don't feel so awesome, don't read The Coming Plague.

Sunday, October 14, 2012


Sometimes we have to be reminded what a fascinating world we live in. 

Saturday, October 13, 2012

4000 Miles

Tonight we talked for four hours and forty-seven minutes. We talked about our day; the people we had seen and things we'd tried to do. He watched as I built my new IKEA organizer and shuffled through old letters. I taught him "te conozco mozco" and he organized our IRC farm day next weekend. We laughed and teased. It was like the 4000 miles and 2 separate continents were merely an afterthought.

Sometimes we'd just lay silent, wordlessly remembering when our faces were more than just a screenshot. When we weren't confined to pixilated boxes subject to the whims of faulty internet connections. When we didn't have to worry about time zones or slow, 3-week-long postage. But the 4000 miles has meant we've talked about things maybe we wouldn't have....or, at least, not until later. We lay tonight, pensive and quiet, sharing goals, reservations, things we missed, old memories, why we appreciate each other. Fears. We traced the existence of "us" back to last December, and then again to a sunny day in March when he took me to the cliffs overlooking the ocean, and I was too nervous to shut up.  Back to the night I first leaned against him, back when we still were afraid to touch.

Lima, Peru is an achingly long ways away from San Diego, CA. December 20th is sixty-eight days away. But when someone is that far away, you can't take them for granted...which only means they're that much more special. 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

One of those days

I see future-Risa being very productive working from home. I'm picturing a cozy, sunny office covered in maps and pictures from the places I routinely have to visit for "business" with a steamy cup of tea in my hand and flamenco guitar playing in the background.

Today has been one of those days where I feel like I can rule the world from my laptop. Dozens of emails have been sent, a paper was started, research accomplished, wrote with a new collaborator in Mexico, finalized details for an IRC meeting tonight, and got hyped up about the UN International Day of the Girl Child's efforts worldwide today. And yet here I am, padding around barefoot in my bedroom/office in my boxers and sweater. Eating trail-mix. It's a beautiful thing. 

Tuesday, October 9, 2012


"Words are like eggs dropped from great heights; you can no more call them back than ignore the mess they leave when they fall." -Jodi Picoult

"Handle them carefully, for words have more power than atom bombs." -Pearl Strachan

"Good communication is as stimulating as black coffee, and just as hard to sleep after." -Anne Morrow Lindbergh

"The real art of conversation is not only to say the right thing at the right place, but to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment." -Dorothy Nevill

Monday, October 8, 2012


World maps stare down at me from their perches on the wall. The ocean breeze plays with the colorful Mexican paper flags hanging in the window and this song plays on and on. It might be on repeat.

I'm grabbing an hour or so to finalize everything for an informational session the officers and I are putting on tomorrow night for the IRC club starting up. It's exciting and the new email is full of questions from interested volunteers. Flyers are taped up all over campus, we've presented in 7 classes full of hundreds of students, tabled, and I'm working on a powerpoint presentation for tomorrow's session now. Energy, nervousness, excitement, momentum, daunting. I can't wait to see how it goes. 

Thursday, October 4, 2012


The night is long and, while my body is exhausted, my mind is restless.  Long to-do lists form as I try to sleep and I suddenly remember things I needed to accomplish, people I needed to talk to, emails I needed to send, but didn't.  So I'm up again writing people I need to, and to people I love. Postcards are scattered across my desk with a variety of colorful destinations: Peru, Spain, Sacramento, Fallbrook.

The night is dense and ocean fog shrouds the stars in a veil of mist. There's a 3/4 moon hiding somewhere out there. I suppose knowledge is like that: you know it's there, you just have to find and learn it.  That's probably why it's addicting. There's so much potential to learn, and often about things you didn't know existed.

I'm off to make a cup of Jordanian tea and write a few more emails. The sun'll be up soon.