June 2011


This morning at the gym, I turned on the news to see live footage of the riots taking place in front of the Greek Parliament building in Athens.  Dark-haired Greek men and women faced off with tough-looking policemen bearing shields and tear gas, in an awkward dance where both parties tried to guess when or if the opposing crowd would make a move.

I recognized that square in front of the Parliament building in Athens–I had gone there with friends back in 2006 on a tour of Greece.  My friend Sy and I had crashed a Greek wedding nearby, on accident (we walked into a church where a wedding happened to be taking place, and we couldn’t very well just leave–it was a Greek wedding!)  Sy, my other friend Ileana, and I had also explored the market in the square and really enjoyed the laidback feel to the Greek capital.

It seems like the laidback feel also came with some risks.  I remember a guide telling me in Greece that life there was great–you could retire super early and enjoy a generous government-funded pension, when you did work you received tons of government-subsidized perks, and you received a ton of paid vacation days.  I definitely could not say the same for the U.S., and the Greeks definitely could not understand the concept that Americans barely get one or two weeks of paid vacation a year, if they’re lucky.

In the end, sadly, Greece faced major deficits and saw their economy spiraling out of control.  Today, June 29, the government had to vote on whether or not to make serious economic reforms.  People were out protesting because, naturally, it was difficult to even fathom the reality of all the benefits they were used to being taken away.

While trying to stay focused on my workout and burn off the ice cream from last night (red velvet ice cream if anyone’s curious–heaven in a pint), I thought about how much I had enjoyed Greece.  Sy, Ileana, and I had taken our graduate exams at King’s College London and had gone straight to Heathrow Airport to catch a flight to Athens.  We spent several days exploring the ruins of Athens, then took a cruise around several islands such as Mykonos, Crete, Santorini, and others.

My favorite memories from Greece were visiting Patmos (where the apostle John, according to historical analysis, wrote the Biblical book of Revelation); strolling through the amazing Plaka shopping district in Athens and buying way too much; having a Greek boatman say, “Parakalo” with a toothless grin when I tried to use my pocket dictionary Greek and told him, “Efharisto” when he helped me off of the boat; riding a donkey down the caldera of Santorini; and the food.

Oh, the food.  I fell in love just with the Greek cuisine alone.  Every morning I eagerly headed to breakfast so that I could enjoy a big bowl of Greek yogurt with fresh honey and pistachio, at lunchtime I couldn’t wait to dig into a heaping plate of moussaka, and about twice a day I had a craving for yogurt and honey ice cream.  I remember making numerous trips to the market for fresh olives, stuffing my backpack with jars of Greek honey, and hauling away bags of fresh Santorini pistachio nuts to take back and enjoy in London.

When I snapped out of my reverie, the news reported that they had received word on the outcome of the vote.  The government did indeed go through with passing austerity measures, and it looks like Greece will face tax hikes and spending cuts in order to secure bailout funds from the IMF.  Things are about to change in major ways for the Greeks.

I hope that Greece is able to get its economic situation under control soon.  It’s such an amazing, unforgettable place, and once you’ve been there, you understand why.  Athens alone is unlike any other city in the world–once you’ve stood in front of the imposing Parthenon, all of those pictures in history books from your childhood come to life.  And the islands…I could go on forever about the islands.

In the meantime, as a country with such an incredible history, hopefully Greece will write a new chapter.  One with brighter days ahead.

 

 

Human trafficking is a horrendous reality, as we all can imagine.  Many travelers who have ventured outside of the U.S. (although trafficking happens in our own country as well, sadly) have been to places where, outside of the safety of tourist havens or nice hotels, there are dark underworlds where countless people are trapped in labor and/or sex trafficking situations.  It’s truly heart wrenching.

The U.S. State Department released its TIP (Trafficking in Persons) Report today, and it was interesting to read through.  The Department surveyed 180 countries, apparently the largest number ever studied for the report, and ranked countries by Tiers 1, 2, and 3.  If a country is labeled as a Tier 1 country, that means that they’re in compliance with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s minimum standards.  Tier 2 means that the country’s government doesn’t fully comply with the Act’s standards but is making “significant efforts” to enact compliance and is seeing improvement in human trafficking.  Countries who are blacklisted on the Tier 3 list are not complying with minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so.

This year, the following countries made the Tier 3 black list:

1.  Algeria

2.  Burma

3.  Central African Republic

4.  Congo (DRC)

5.  Cuba

6.  Equatorial Guinea

7.  Eritrea

8.  Guinea-Bissau

9.  Iran

10.  North Korea

11.  Kuwait

12.  Lebanon

13.  Libya

14.  Madagascar

15.  Mauritania

16.  Micronesia

17.  Papua New Guinea

18.  Saudi Arabia

19.  Sudan

20.  Turkmenistan

21.  Venezuela

22.  Yemen

23.  Zimbabwe

Last year, 13 countries made it on the Tier 3 black list, meaning that there are 10 more countries that have worsened in terms of human trafficking.  The Dominican Republic was the only country to get its name removed from the Tier 3 list.

There are many ways to get involved in the fight against human trafficking.  I am a big fan of the organization IJM (International Justice Mission), which does great work in combating human trafficking.  They work with locals in countries like those on the Tier 3 list to identify trafficking rings, rescue victims from slavery, prosecute the criminals who enslave them, and rehabilitate the victims.  For more information check out http://www.ijm.org.

 

Last week, the UK-based aid group Oxfam released its findings from a survey of 16,000 people to determine the world’s favorite foods.

I read the list curious to see what made the top ten–after all, there are so many different cultures and food preferences in the world, and it would be fascinating to see what trends emerged from the study.  (Plus I was hungry and looking for inspiration as to what to eat for lunch).

The top ten foods, according to the survey, were as follows:

1. Pasta

2. Meat

3. Rice

4. Pizza

5. Chicken

6. Fish/Seafood

7. Vegetables

8. Chinese food

9. Italian food

10. Mexican food

After reading the list, it kind of made sense to me.  Have you ever met anyone, for instance, who hates pasta?  The first dish that I ever learned to make was spaghetti with meat sauce, a recipe that to this day I rely on if I need to make a quick and easy dinner.  There are so many different types of pasta too, from ravioli to linguini to bowtie, and on and on and on (apparently there are over 600 shapes of pasta in this world).  Not to mention, for those of you who have been to Italy, a heaping plate of al dente (loosely translated, ‘firm to the teeth’) pasta with a savory sauce that only the Italians can pull off makes you feel one step closer to heaven.

I also found it interesting that, according to the study, Australians were the only ones to name chocolate as a favorite food.  (I agree that chocolate is a food group on its own, one with magical powers).  Also, according to the International Pasta Organization, Venezuelans hold their own against the Italians–Venezuelans reportedly consume 12 kg of pasta per capita a year (Italians consume about 26 kg a year, and can you blame them?)

Looking at the food stats and rankings also made me think about gastrodiplomacy, a fancy term that simply means that countries share and bond over their respective cuisines.  As a student of international relations, I must say that gastrodiplomacy is my favorite form of diplomacy.  The best way to get to know people, especially from a different culture, is to sit down over a meal and enjoy the food.

So, lesson of the day–if you need to make a quick meal for friends, are hosting a dinner party for international visitors, or want to pay homage to the world’s top food, grab a bag of pasta and go for it.  And buon appetito.

After church on Sunday, my fiance Leon and I were craving Mexican food for lunch (okay, I was craving Mexican food and convinced him to crave it too).  We went on a mission to find a good restaurant nearby.

In the old days, I would have–I confess–driven around tirelessly to find a Mexican restaurant.  Or I would have sprinted to the nearest Taco Bell.  But , thanks to the gloriousness of modern technology, I was able to plug a Mexican restaurant search into my iPhone, find a listing of restaurants close by with brutally honest reviews of the food, and get GPS directions to the restaurant.

We ended up going to El Tio restaurant in Falls Church, Virginia, by the way–it was pretty good, and the chips and queso definitely satiated the pain of Mexican food cravings.  As other Texans will understand (or those growing up in states with good Mexican food), Mexican food is like an energy source.  You might be able to function okay without it for awhile, but eventually your energy supply will get low and demand replenishment.

The experience of using Google maps and GPS directions to guide Leon and me to a good place for lunch reminded me of a favorite hobby of mine that I hadn’t done for awhile:  mapsurf.

Mapsurfing is fun, educational, and entertaining.  Just go to the Google main page and pull up a Google world map.  You can scroll around the map, click on countries to get a closer look, and have a visual of the exciting world in which we live.  It’s fun, interactive, and keeps a traveler–or aspiring traveler–geographically aware (we must fight the temptation to be geographically ignorant, my fellow Americans).

Whenever I get the itch to travel and can’t, or shouldn’t, whether it be the timing/finances/realities of being an adult, I find my solace in mapsurfing.  I learn something new every time.  As well, mapsurfing makes the things you hear about in the news come to life.

Case in point:  Yesterday, June 20, 2011, was World Refugee Day.  These days we’re constantly hearing stories on the news about Syrian refugees fleeing to Turkey, the Italian island of Lampedusa being bombarded by immigrants seeking refuge in Europe from the unrest in Libya and Tunisia, and so forth.  When you actually know where the country is located, it makes the news stories much more real.  It just takes a little mapsurfing to understand why people in northern Africa would be trying to get to a little Italian island.

So, whether you’re having a case of wanderlust that won’t be cured for awhile, or if you want the international news segments to make more sense, try mapsurfing.  You’ll learn something new, and you might just find a unique travel destination along the way.

When I was a kid growing up in Texas, I saw Texas as being its own gigantic, dynamic country within our bigger country.  In school we said the Pledge of Allegiance to the U.S. flag, but it was also noted that Texas had been its own republic for almost a decade.

But, more of Texas history later.  My parents made it a point for our family to explore other parts of our country, which I later appreciated.  I did most of my traveling around the U.S. as a child, and then later when I moved back and took a job in Washington, D.C.  With the economy not being so great now, many friends I’ve talked to, and myself, find themselves vacationing closer to home.

The good thing about the U.S. is that, even when you vacation within its borders, it still usually feels like a vacation.  The United States is vast, and it has its own mini cultures nestled into one big territory.  I love continuing to explore my native country, and I appreciate the fact that, within the flexibility of federalism, each state has its own personality.  Couple this with the wide range of terrain, weather, and local agriculture, and traveling around the U.S. alone makes you want to carry your passport.

I have focused most of my time over the years on traveling abroad, but it’s important to understand your homeland as well.  I haven’t been to all 50 states, but the ones I have visited have taught me to appreciate the land I live in, with so many resources, beautiful sights, and generous people.

In conjunction with my international travel list, I added up how many states I’ve been to.  The total comes to 29, so just a little over half.  I feel fortunate to have seen different regions of the U.S., from the great beaches of the West coast to the wide open spaces of the South to the cosmopolitan cities of the East coast.

My U.S.A. travel list is below, with hopefully more to come:

1)   Alabama

2)   Arizona

3)   Arkansas

4)   California

5)   Colorado

6)   Delaware

7)   Florida

8)   Hawaii

9)    Idaho

10)  Illinois

11)  Louisiana

12)  Maryland

13)  Massachusetts

14)  Mississippi

15)  Missouri

16)  Nevada

17)  New Jersey

18)  New Mexico

19)  New York

20) North Carolina

21)  Ohio

22)  Oklahoma

23)  Pennsylvania

24)  Rhode Island

25)  South Dakota

26)  Texas

27)  Utah

28) Virginia

29)  Wyoming

Each state has something different to offer, and my goal over time is to spotlight some of my favorite places.  It’s tough to narrow it down, for sure–whenever friends from other countries have visited me in the U.S., they fell in love with it.  What’s not to love, after all?  Free refills (not a basic right in most parts of the world), friendly people (for the most part), a sense of freedom and liberty, and gorgeous sights.  God bless the U.S.A.

This week, my company had a work retreat in D.C. to discuss the direction of the firm and the need to utilize social media more often.  I was taking notes when all of a sudden the subject of Twitter came up.

My boss talked about expanding our Twitter usage, and he commented that he assumed that everyone had a Twitter account.  I stopped writing, and apparently I had a giant “guilty” sign on my face, because our tech expert looked at me and said, “You do have Twitter, right Lindsey?”  Silence filled the room, and I could feel myself turning a little red.  I answered that no, I did not have a Twitter account yet, and wondered if I would be flogged.

No flogging proceeded after that encounter, but I was asked by my boss to set up a Twitter account that afternoon.  My brain was spinning–between Gmail, Yahoo, Facebook, LinkedIn, and now Twitter, I felt like I was on social media overload.  I was reminded of the Conan O’Brien joke that if you put all of the latest social media names together, you’d get “You.Twit.Face.”

My fantastic friend and co-worker Lisa gave me a “Twitter 101” lesson, and soon I was connected to the world of tweets, tweeps, and hashtags (oh my).  It was kind of fun to realize that you could “follow” tons of different people, and I signed up to follow everyone from Khloe Kardashian (I like reality TV, okay?) to the U.S. State Department’s Assistant Secretary of State for Education and Cultural Affairs to People Magazine.  I also signed up to follow foreign news outlets in Mexico, Brazil, Paris, and Rome, which was kind of cool.

When you think about it, social media has made the world even smaller.  I can Skype with friends in London and feel like they’re sitting next to me (except when their faces freeze on the computer screen).  I can write messages to my friends in Seoul and know that it will be in their inbox right after I send it.  I can get professional advice from friends around the world through LinkedIn, post a Facebook wall post for friends overseas to ask for travel advice, and so on.  You can look at pictures of destinations, read other travelers’ opinions about locations, and prepare for trips using firsthand accounts of what to expect.

So, in a sense, social media can make you feel like you’re mentally traveling to far off places, which is great when you can’t physically travel.  Nothing beats the real deal, to be sure, but there are realities that prevent most of us from taking off 365 days a year–jobs, paychecks, bills, and all of the other fun aspects of being an adult.

I’m still getting used to Twitter, and part of me is still on social media overload, but I do like the fact that even if I’m not physically in Rome, Paris, Rio, or wherever, I can still get real time updates of what’s happening there.  I might be in Washington, D.C., but Twitter can at least help me mentally travel to other parts of the world.

In the end, I think that I like Twitter.  I just have to make sure that I don’t mentally travel to Rio and forget where I actually am…

 

 

 

When I graduated from McKinney High School in 2001, I was dying to get out of McKinney.  Although I was only headed two hours down the road to Baylor University in Waco, Texas, it felt like I was escaping to a bigger world.  I wanted to get out of my hometown and see the world (I know, starting with Waco was a small step, but a step nonetheless).

Likewise, when it was time to walk the stage in 2005 at Baylor, I was aching to get out and see more of the world.  I had done study abroad programs or international internships during summer breaks, but I was ready to live full-time in a different country.  After I received my Bachelors degree, I headed to D.C. for a summer internship and then moved to London to begin the MA International Relations course at King’s College.

As the years went by, and I lived overseas longer and traveled more, Texas seemed very, very far away.  I found myself, however, missing my homeland and thinking of the teachers who had encouraged me to “get out” and explore my interests.

Things got busy, though, and before I knew it I was at my ten year high school reunion.  It was great to see familiar faces, many of whom I had not seen for a decade, but I also began to think more and more about my high school (and college) teachers who had made such great impressions on my life over the years.

So, I decided to take some time to hunt them down and tell them “thank you,” something that I should have done long ago.  Talk about a trip down memory lane.

I started with my favorite high school teacher, Mrs. Chandler, who once put in a video to entertain our Humanities class and took me to the teacher’s lounge to get a Coke and listen to me vent about my confusion over whether I should go to Baylor or Wake Forest. Thanks to Facebook and Google, it’s easier than ever to find people that you’re looking for.  Soon Mrs. Chandler and I were Facebook friends and started to catch up on the last ten years.

I sat down and made a list of other teachers to touch base with and thank for their influence.  There was Mrs. Presley, my high school student council and government/economics teacher who, as student body president, I spent more time with than my own mother senior year (Homecoming, dances, leadership conferences–our student council was awesome).  There was Senor Place, my high school Spanish teacher who had encouraged me to continue studying Spanish.  I thanked him for his encouragement and told him that I had indeed studied Spanish, in Spain, Argentina, Chile, and other places, and that he was in part to thank for that.

There was also Dr. Hinojosa at Baylor, whose classes I loved–Latin American Politics and International Relations.  I found his university email and wrote him a note giving him an update on my life and thanking him for encouraging me to see the world.

As I thought back through the years, and those teachers who shaped my life without me even realizing it, I wished that I had looked them up earlier and given them the thanks they so rightfully deserved.  But, better late than never I suppose.

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