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  • September 21, 2015

Sunset in Philly over boathouse row

I’m 8 years old and we’re in the midst of the Persian Gulf War. Between my parents fixated on the television watching the news, rushing to the bomb shelter, and bartering with neighbors, we don’t go outside much. That is until our upstairs neighbors packed up to leave. We had grown up with them. We would play house with their two little girls who were our age. They were the first in our building to leave the country, to go somewhere safer…where I don’t remember. We hugged tightly and wished each other well. I was upset they were leaving and ran back upstairs early.

That same day, I heard explosions and instead of going to the basement I peered out our apartment window. Gray planes were flying over the main road and one of them was dropping bombs. My Mom rushed over to cover my eyes but it was too late. I saw one of them go through a moving car. I can still picture the explosion vividly in my mind.

Today marks the 25th year anniversary of my family migrating to Philadelphia. With the refugee crisis in Syria, I’m filled with gratitude at the lucky cards we were dealt. Of thousands of families, two men from the American embassy came to intentionally find and collect us – all because my little brother had just been born there two months prior.

I follow the news about the refugees’ journey with newfound interest. Actively reading media publications or watching news channels isn’t in my repertoire. But this is different. I picture my family all those years ago and I can’t help but think about what would have happened…

…if my Dad didn’t go to Philadelphia two months before.

…if my Mom hadn’t joined him.

…if my Mom hadn’t been six months pregnant.

…if my grandmother had not agreed to take care of the 5 of us while they were gone.

…if they would not have stayed as long as they did.

My heart broke when I saw pictures of the 3 year old child who drowned and washed up on the beach. When I read his father’s personal story of losing his whole family. When I watched the video of a journalist tripping refugees trying to cross the Hungarian border for safety. When I see other videos of police beating them back after their long journey.

And my heart warmed when I saw the #refugeeswelcome hashtag, shots of European citizens cheering as the migrants disembark from the trains. Of humanitarians passing out food. Of countries opening up their borders.

Then there are the comments.

“They don’t belong here.”

“They’re going to take all our jobs.”

“They brought it upon themselves.”

“We should mind our own business.”

“Why are we letting terrorists into our country?”

“Round them up and send them back.”

I know it’s fear and ignorance that drives those perspectives. At the same time, I want to bring them together and explain the randomness of the birth lottery. The pure luck of the draw of being born in a particular country. And how it could have been them.

We don’t choose our parents, the culture we’re born into, the color of our skin, the religion that’s bestowed upon us, our socioeconomic class, the order in which we’re born, the education we receive…and they all have a direct impact on the opportunities and disadvantages we’ll have in life. Furthermore, we have zero influence on these when we’re most vulnerable.

TEDxPhilly quote

I gave a TEDx Philly talk on the topic. I was apprehensive about it because I don’t like sharing stories of my past. The stare of disbelief is something I can do without. But the awareness afterwards – that’s important and it makes it worthwhile. The videos are taking a while to come out – and part of me is glad, but another part wishes it was ready so that I can share it anytime I hear or read those remarks of indifference. In the meantime, I gave a similar presentation – this one focused on empathy – at Creative Mornings Philadelphia a couple of months ago. The goal of the talk was to fill people with compassion and understanding for others who are not like them or went through different experiences. If you like it, please share it with someone who could use it.

I haven’t been back to the Middle East since we were whisked away. It’s been on my bucket list since I became a citizen 3 years ago. How am I going to celebrate the anniversary today? Besides booking a trip, I’m not sure yet.

Update: An hour after posting this, I received an acceptance email for an entrepreneurship fellowship I applied for a few months ago. It’s in Jordan. <insert goosebumps>

Update 2: It’s World Peace Day! What a crazy coincidence! 

  • images
  • September 11, 2015


The anniversary of 9/11 is difficult for me because it’s a painful reminder of the discrimination that followed my family. I usually take a break from social media so I don’t think of the “terrorist” jeers, or the screams to “go back to your country.” It didn’t matter that my Mom volunteered to be a translator or that I attempted to enlist in the army. From the outside our skin, dark features, and last name were synonymous with the enemy.

The prejudice was heaviest at work for me. I had two jobs to support myself through college. The ordeal motivated me to be my own boss so I had control over my career, the people I surrounded myself with and the customers I interacted with. So I could treat and lead others the way I’d want to be led. I woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t go back to sleep when I encountered the #afterseptember11 hashtag on Twitter. I clicked on it and I instantly became emotional reading the heartbreaking experiences other Arabs and minorities faced and continue to endure.

It’s ironic that my latest venture, ROAR for Good, officially turned one yesterday. I didn’t share it outside the company because it didn’t feel…right. Now I want to reclaim that. There’s something symbolic about how it came around. Instead of a tragic day that set actions in motions I’d rather forget, I want to remember it for what it was and the person I became.

It’s been 14 years since the 19-year-old me said “One day, I’m going to have my own business.” I never would have guessed it would have fallen on the date that turned my life upside down and inside out. Except now, it’s memorable as a new beginning.

I can’t believe it’s been six months since I updated this blog. The good news is that the time has been put to good use.

On the professional front, I launched another company called ROAR for Good (useROAR.com), a social impact initiative aimed at utilizing technology and educational Philly-Inquirer-ROAR-front-pageprograms to end violence against women. We were thrilled to be accepted into the Project Liberty incubator (funded by the Knight Foundation, operated by Ben Franklin Technology Partners, and hosted by Interstate General Media). Despite being pre-launch and pre-revenue, we’ve garnered wonderful press landing on the front page of Sunday’s Inquirer Business section, featured in the Philadelphia Business Journal, Generocity.org, ShinyShiny, Beutiful Magazine, and Wearable World News. You can stay updated on our progress by joining our mailing list at useROAR.com.

Also, I was invited to join the Board of Directors of Coded by Kids, a non-profit that helps inner city kids learn how to code. We can’t help the socio-economic status of our parents, and it’s difficult to break out of the cycle of poverty because resources are limited or non-existent. Coded by Kids is increasing the odds of success for these kids not just by teaching them how to become more technically proficient but also through helping them think logically and utilize their imagination. Here’s a quick informational video that shows how it makes a difference.

Girl Develop It Philly celebrated 3 years in September. GirlDevelopIt-birthday-cakeA feature in the Philadelphia Business Journal showcased 7 members who changed their lives through our organization. I also reversed roles and co-taught my first Entrepreneurship class.

I was honored to speak at numerous events including Temple University’s 15th Annual League of Entrepreneurial Women’s Conference, Fashion & Tech panel, Temple Women’s Brunch, Rad-Girls panel, and more I can’t think of at the moment.

On a personal note, I’m still traveling. I took a 10-day trip to Niagara Falls, Montreal and Quebec with my family, spent a few days with friends in Orlando, joined Indy Hall’s BeachWorking weekend at Sea Isle, went to Boston with my business partner and friend, and most recently, went on a weekend gateway to Ithaca, NY. I’m hoping to travel more domestically next year with another trip to South America and the Middle East.


I also ran the Broad Street run (10 miles) again, participated in a 3-week daily (Monday thru Friday) bootcamp that just ended, and celebrated the 24th anniversary of migrating to the States on September. That’s not all – my family is getting bigger; my little brother got married and my older sister had a baby boy.

Yesterday, I hit inbox zero for the first time in over a year thanks to the productivity hacks of Getting Things Done (kudos to Anthony Gold for the intro). That’s a milestone worth it’s own paragraph.

Life is busy but good.


death-road-cross“52 kilometers – that’s not so bad. It will be over in 3 hours, Yasmine. Take it slowly. This isn’t a race. Don’t you dare let your competitiveness kick in. Just focus on the road. Don’t look at the steep overhangs or the narrow, never-ending switchbacks.

Pedal! Shit, the mountain is so steep that pedaling is pointless.

Don’t look that far. Focus on what’s in front of you.

Okay, remember what the guide said. Brake with two pumps, once on each brake.

WHAT THE F*!&? That didn’t do much, do it again. Keep pulsing, this bike isn’t slowing down enough.

OH MY GOD, here comes a curve, press down HARDER!

Wheeew, you made it. Don’t celebrate yet, here’s another one. Brake more often. You know what, JUST BRAKE THE WHOLE TIME!

Don’t think about how you can no longer see anyone else. This is your life. You’ve been on your own for almost 5 months now, you’re not going to get yourself killed weeks before you come back home. Think about how much you miss your family, your friends, chai tea lattes (why don’t they have them in South America? Maybe a business opportunity?). Okay, just focus. You’re almost at the first check-point. You’re doing fine.”

My heart is beating, my shoulders are tense and I don’t dare fix the sunglasses that have slipped down my nose. I count to remind myself to breathe. I’m only concentrating on the road ahead of me, taking it one step at a time until it’s over.

Death-Road-Cliff-BoliviaOn October 10th, I did the most idiotic, challenging and stimulating thing I’ve ever done. I went mountain biking for the first time on the world’s most dangerous road, appropriately titled ‘Death Road’. A total of 52km (or 32.3 miles) of which 95% was downhill and teetering on the edge of sharp cliffs, we started at 15,500 feet and descended to 4,000 feet. Paralyzed with fear during the first half, I finally let go and had an adrenaline pumping, exhilarating time.

I first learned about the road from two members of the Salt Flats tour I just finished in South Bolivia. They raved about the excursion, from the ride to the scenary, to the people they met, and the company they did it with. Soon after, I heard about it from everyone. At this point in my travels, I no longer consulted guidebooks and relied on other travelers for things to do and places to go. Without even thinking, I put it in my mind I would do it as well so I signed up with a friend I was traveling with at the time.

I say it was the stupidest thing I’ve ever done because I had barely picked up a bike since high school, I had never been mountain biking, and I completely underestimated the premise behind the meaning of “Death Road.” You may be wondering, why keep going when you realized you were in over your head? That’s a simple, unflattering answer. I’m a stubborn individual and I decided I would reduce the risks by riding as slow as possible.

Before I get comfortable with the asphalt, we learn we’re going off-road for a couple minutes to bypass a tunnel and get back on. “That means rocks,” my brain tells me. “Just do it.”

The shift from the smooth road to the rough, rugged terrain is shocking at first. “Don’t let yourself feel it. Steer and react. Steer and react. Shit, that’s a big hole, TURN! Oh no, no, nooooo.”

“Whew, you did it! YOU MADE IT! Yippeeeeeeeee! Just 10 more km on asphalt, you got this.”

Then we’re told the rest of the path will be off-road, to be careful of trucks and cars coming the opposite direction because the main road is closed and there will be more traffic than usual.

My hands hurt from clutching the brakes so tightly. My crotch starts to feel the effects of the relentless shaking of the bicycle due to the rocks. I catch a glimpse of the deep drop-off at the next curve and I want to quit, to get into the van following us on and off and just meet everyone at the bottom.

“But you’re halfway there, Yasmine. Stand up during the rough patches, you’ll reduce the pain. Stop braking so much, just let go.”

“There you go! Let go juuust a little bit. Okay good, now wait longer before braking. Do it again. And again. Stop letting the fear consume you. Goddamnit, stop trying to control everything and let yourself go.”

And somehow, I did. It’s difficult to describe exactly what came over me and this is the part that gets muddled when I try explaining it to others. In essence, it was almost like I scared myself out of the fear if it’s even possible. I felt like the road was my control issues and the bike was me – the more I tried to contain it, the more unenjoyable my ride was. When I embraced the experience, I was able to look around at the majestic mountains and beautiful waterfalls around me. I felt like I released myself of something.

I let out a big “Whooooop!” I no longer felt the pain in various parts of my body. I felt alive, unstoppable, and on top of the world.

riding-death-roadWithout even thinking about it, I let out more screams of excitement. It was as if I was releasing the fear and replacing it with wonder, joy, and a fresh perspective. I was the one now in control. I had “biked” through the fear and put it behind me. I had vanquished its power.

What is fear exactly besides thoughts conjured up in our own heads? I realized the longer I thought about it, the longer it would take me to overcome it and the more I denied it, the stronger it became.

This magnificent feeling, this pure, unadulterated joy I felt as I went faster and faster, as I took in the stunning scenery around me, as I breathed in the fresh mountain air and felt it go through my lungs, as the little voice in my head went away…this was an emotion I didn’t want to go away. Ever.

I was disappointed when the next check-point came. I didn’t want to stop. Thinking back, I realize how incredibly fortunate I was. I had no business being on that road and the ordeal turned out to be the most life-changing and awakening experiences of my trip. It completely redefined my relationship with fear.

Curious as to what Death Road is like or planning a trip to Bolivia? Here’s a hair-raising Youtube video of the attraction:


“Dropping my used toilet paper straight into the toilet!” That was the first thing I blurted out when my brother asked me, three months into my trek across South America, what I missed most about being away from home.

I recently came across a Quora thread titled “What facts about the United States do foreigners not believe until they come to America?“. It got me thinking about the cultural differences I encountered while I was away so I decided to make a list.

  • Going back to the topic of toilets – due to poor sewage systems, toilet paper was dropped in a trash bin by the sink whether it was #1 or #2. It took me a while to get used to this even with the signs hotels put up. Related, I didn’t see automated toilets or sinks anywhere.
  • As you may expect, hot showers were a luxury. This includes shower heads with good water pressure. Getting used to taking cold showers is something I never want to do.
  • In Ecuador and Bolivia, most locals washed their clothes by hand. I remember coming across a public watering hole with partitions where women gathered to do the wash. For travelers, there were laundromats that washed and folded clothes for $1 a pound.
  • Going to McDonald’s is considered a fancy date in Ecuador. On my last day in Quito, 3 classmates and I went to McDonald’s (I ate there every time I missed home – 4 times total throughout the trip). We saw a teenage couple walk in and the guy give his girlfriend a rose, then go up and order for the both of them. It was adorable.
  • Getting used to water not being free. In fact, bottled water is more expensive than soda and juice in most places. I even discovered glasses of wine in Mendoza that were cheaper. (P.S. I discovered two places where it’s safe to drink the tap water – Medellin & Valparaiso).
  • Coffee shops are popular in Chile, especially cafe con piernas (coffee shops with legs). Businessmen go to ogle women dressed in short skirts or dresses serving coffee. They also have what’s called a “Happy Minute,” where the women close the blinds, lock the doors, and strip dance for 60 seconds.
  • Coca-Cola has the South American market cornered. They are literally everywhere. Ah, and in glass bottles they tasted soooo good. There was one time where the cashier tried to explain to me that I had to drink it inside so they could recycle the bottle. I was running late to class so I bolted when she turned around. I explained what happened to my Spanish teacher and he returned it for me.
  • Bread, potatoes, and rice were stables in almost every country. In Ecuador, bread was served with every meal and sometimes I was served both rice and potatoes for dinner.
  • The speciality dish in Ecuador and Peru is cuy, or Guinea pig. It’s served whole with the head and everything. I didn’t have the guts to try it. Those who did said it wasn’t bad at all.
  • Despite what you would think, finding good pizza and Mexican food was difficult.
  • How the dead were memorialized. Talking about death wasn’t considered a taboo subject and locals (rich and poor) spent a lot of money on the gravestones. Some of the cemeteries I visited in Buenos Aires and Valparasio were like small villages.
  • Sex and nudity are also not considered a big deal. In Spanish school, I was shown a clip of a man biting a women’s nipple off. My teacher didn’t even blink.
  • In Ecuador and Bolivia, seeing farm animals in the streets was a common occurrence.
  • Also, in Ecuador kids played soccers on the streets when cars were not on the road.
  • Children accompanied the mothers to work, whether they carried them on their backs, had them hang out their kiosk/store or put them in a cardboard box (this really happened in Ecuador).
  • There are no such things as car seats for kids. Seeing families traveling by motorcycle in Colombia with a mother carrying an infant or toddler was a common sight.
  • The number of women and men police officers is almost 50/50 in Uruguay, Argentina, Chile and Peru. Most don’t carry guns.
  • In fact, gun violence is virtually non-existent. According to the locals I talked to, those who want to carry must provide a valid reason and pass a criminal background check.
  • How religious the people are and how even the biggest cities shut down on Sundays.
  • How warm and open locals were in every one of the six countries I visited. Whether I asked for directions or recommendations on places to go, people were genuinely concerned and it was easy to see they really cared. Also, while we consider questions like “How old are you?” and “Are you married?” within the first few minutes forward and nosy, they are quite frequent.
  • Houses were mostly made of cement, brick and other durable material – not wood.
  • The concept of time in South America is very different. A store could say they open at 10am but not come in til after 11am. I waited for an hour and a half at post office in Bolivia once and no one showed up at the counter.
  • There are no such things are disclaimers to go horseback riding, paragliding, bungee jumping, etc. You just go at your own risk.
  • American music is played everywhere, especially in Argentina and Chile. I was surprised at how prevalent it was, even when people don’t understand English.
  • People drive like maniacs and either don’t obey traffic laws or they don’t exist. In fact, vehicular homicide is the #1 cause of death in South America.
  • Air pollution isn’t regulated and it’s noticeably bad in some places like Quito, Lima & Santiago.
  • It’s a credit card less society and cash is the common form of currency.
  • It’s not customary to tip taxi drivers – it’s just a flat rate. Also, some taxis didn’t have meters so I had to negotiate a rate up front.
  • Universal health care in countries like Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Peru were standard.
  • Free college education in countries like Ecuador and Argentina. In Argentina, you don’t even have to be a citizen. You can live in Chile and commute to school in Argentina without paying a dime.
  • Poor people tend to live in the mountains among beautiful scenery while the rich reside in the polluted city center.
  • Food portions are smaller and most places serve combo meals with soup, an entree, dessert and even a drink. I liked it a lot.
  • Young people don’t typically have their own apartments, they live with their family or roommates.
  • I barely saw African Americans even among the travelers. I’m still unsure why to this day. 
  • I encountered many protests with people on the streets waving signs related to their cause, singing or parading around town. The levels of political unrest in Argentina, Chile, Bolivia and Peru especially.
  • The sex hotels in Colombia and Argentina. Because it’s typical for young people to live at home until their 30s, they sneak to pay by the hour motels. I read that some even provide themed rooms with free drinks, toys and contraceptives.
  • The colonial architecture in Argentina and Peru were especially stunning and not just churches or public spaces. The details, colors, garygoyles, and Spanish balconies were a sight to behold.
  • Every major city had a main plaza named after a war hero. The commonality of public spaces was also clear. In Mendoza, they were purposely designed after a major earthquake to give residents a place to go to and inhabit if needed.
  • The way the environment was preserved in every country was also noticeable. The scenery in Ecuador, Argentina and Bolivia especially was utterly breathtaking.
  • Unlike the U.S., it’s not controversial when women breast feed in public. No one bats an eye except for the American tourists.
  • Stray dogs are commonplace in parts of Ecuador, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia and Peru. In most of those places, locals tended to them with care.
  • When I asked locals which states they wanted to visit, New York, California or Florida were the most common answers unless they had family elsewhere.

Which of those surprise you? Are there other things you noticed in South America not listed above?

"I haven't been everywhere but it's on my list"

From my hostel wall in Cali, Columbia

Update: I was featured on Buzzfeed’s “11 Inspiring Stories of People Who Left Normal Life and Embarked on an Adventure” post! Back in May, I announced I was quitting my job, selling my stuff, and traveling the world. I’ve been back for 3 months now and I just spent this past Sunday uploading the thousands of pictures I took and reminiscing about the trip.

To recap, I flew in to Ecuador, visited Colombia, was deported from Argentina, went to Chile, made my way back to Argentina with a one-day visit to Uruguay, headed to Bolivia and finally Peru. The trip was undeniably life-changing. I embarked on the journey for 2 reasons – 1) I finally had the means to do it after becoming a U.S. citizen in 2012 and 2) I’ve worked since I was 9 years old and I was burned out.

I came back with fresh eyes and a new perspective on everything from my goals, surroundings, being, and the human race. Shortly after I finished Spanish school, I lost track of what day and time it was. I eventually got to a point where I stopped looking at guidebooks, I no longer made todo lists for myself, and I didn’t have a schedule. It was spectacular and I miss it immensely. Here’s a brief summary of the things I did and the places I went (or you can view it in pictures by visiting my Instagram feed):

In Ecuador -

  • waterfall-in-ecuadorstanding-middle-worldSidestreet in Ecuador
  • Experienced two unforgettable acts of kindness the first day
  • I fully immersed myself in the language, spending 6 hours a day learning Spanish for the first 3.5 weeks while living with a local family.
  • I literally stood in the middle of the world with one foot in the Northern hemisphere and the other on the South and where the equator coordinates are 0 degrees latitude and longitude
  • I hiked up the Pichincha Volcano (almost to the top but not quite) and took one of the highest aerial lifts in the world
  • I visited over 40 waterfalls in Banos, a quaint little town which also had ‘medicinal’ hot baths
  • I took over 10 salsa lessons with an instructor who didn’t speak English but guided me as gracefully as he could in the basics and more


In Colombia -

  • ballpit in mall Metrocable in Medellin El Peñón de Guatapé horseback ridingGuatape-colombia
  • I visited Cali, the salsa capital of the world
  • I played in the biggest ball pit I’ve ever seen. Where? Surprisingly in the first floor of a beautiful mall in Medellin
  • I went paragliding  for the first time! Due to the language barrier, I accidentally agreed to air acrobatics as you’ll see in the video. Thankfully, it turned out to be a blast and I couldn’t get enough!
  • I attended a futbol (soccer) game in a huge stadium during a championship round. The excitement was palpable and unforgettable. I thought Philly fans were diehard and I learned just how much South Americans live and breathe their sport
  • I spoke at a local coworking space about entrepreneurship
  • I took the Metrocable to the suburban areas of Medellin. I highly recommend doing this during the day and at night to see glamorous views of the city
  • I celebrated 4th of July in a colorful, little town called Guatuape
  • I climbed all 740 steps of El Penon de Guatape (a big rock locals used to worship)
  • I stayed for the annual Feria de Flores festival, the biggest flower show in the world
  • I went horseback riding for the first time in Sante Fe
  • I conquered my fear of water and learned how to swim in a gorgeous resort
  • It was also in Colombia where I started drinking coffee, or cafe con leche to be more specific which I’m now addicted to


In Chile -

  • Valpo at night Valpo houses Valpo bay 1618074_10102126783261173_1087880482_o Skiing in Chile
  • I had my first pisco sour and alfajor – two indulgences I miss dearly
  • I climbed Cerro Santa Lucia & San Cristobal Hill to overlook stunning views of the city
  • I went skiing for the first time on the Andes mountains with a friend who came to visit from Philly
  • I tried Couchsurfing in Valparaiso and was lucky enough to meet a new friend who showed me all around town


In Argentina -

  • salt-lakes-argentina winery in mendoza belgrano del general iguazu-falls7-colored-mountain
  • I was originally deported from Argentina after I flew in from Colombia
  • After altering my plans to visit Chile first, I crossed over by bus and started in Mendoza where I happily did the typical winery tours and steak dinners
  • I met a local on that same bus who invited me to meet his sister. I ended up staying with them for a few days and she took me to the mountains with her boyfriend and friends. She spoke little English but took the time to communicate with me by gesturing and breaking things down in simple Spanish. One night, we spoke purely using Google Translate on the computer
  • I took a bus to Cordoba, the second largest city in Argentina and spent a few days exploring the colonial architecture
  • I stopped by La Cumbercita for a few days, a small mountain village with 300 inhabitants
  • I took a detour to Belgrano del General, a small German town where I felt like I had teleported to the Country itself. P.S. they also hold their own Octuberfest every year.
  • I stayed in Buenos Aires for a couple of weeks where I jumped around neighborhoods, watched tango shows, and ate phenomenal meals (soooo much meat!)
  • I went to Iguazu Falls, a jaw-dropping wonder of the world where the waterfalls were endless
  • I walked to the Tres Fronteras, where you can view Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina at once
  • I stopped by Salta where I took a Tren de las Nubes tour that went to the Salt Lakes of Argentina, Jujuy, Purmamarca, Humahuaca and more towns I don’t remember. The ride is absolutely stunning. Mountains, deserts, cactuses, llamas, donkeys, and the salt flats. We made a few stops to explore a local town, have lunch, roam around the salt flats, and we admired the famous 7-colored mountain


In Bolivia -

  • lake titicaca salt flats in boliviadeath-roadfruit marketLaguna colorado
  • The 4-day salt flats tour was incredible. We visited salt mining and processing areas, stayed in a hotel where everything was made entirely out of salt, saw beautiful lagunas (Laguna Hedionda, Colorada, Blanca, and Verde), hot springs, ruins, churches, and graveyards
  • A new friend and I visited a dinosaur museum in Sucre where we touched 70 million year old dinosaur tracks
  • It was in this country that I finally got used to dining alone. I also tried llama for the first time (not bad)
  • I rode down Death Road, the most dangerous street in the world. This was actually a life-altering experience that I’ll need to write about in another post
  • I stayed in the Pampas jungle for 5 days and saw crocodiles, monkeys, turtles, pink dolphins, snakes, and other animals I had not heard of before
  • I went to Lake Titicaca (bordering Bolivia & Peru), hiked the entire island, and spent the night in Sun Island


In Peru -

  • Machu Picchunazca-linesandboarding in peru
  • I went on a tour of  Colca Canyon (which is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon)
  • I stayed in Cusco for 10 days, learning about Incas and their history. I even met a shaman at Sacsayhuaman and participated in a spiritual ceremony
  • I spent a day at Machu Picchu which was as enlightening as I heard it would be. The pictures don’t do it justice
  • I was lucky enough to win a bus tour from Peru Hop that took us to Arequipa, Huacachina where we went sandboarding, Paracas where we rode a boat to view the wildlife, I flew over the Nazca lines in Ica, and we ended the tour in Lima which was my last city before going home in mid-November.

There’s so much I want to share – from travel hacks I picked up, lessons learned, lost in translation moments, how I only spent $15k, and general observations – that I’ll save them in another post. For now, I’m happy I spent the weekend going through my pictures, finally uploading them, and reliving the experience again by writing this post.

Are you planning a trip to any of the countries mentioned above? I’d be happy to help by sharing more details about my experiences. 

Other travel posts: 

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empower women in techMy inbox is inundated with requests to speak at local tech events, to help out, teach this, lead that, be part of X. Part of the reason for the volume coming through is because they want women represented. It’s great to see companies and conferences take an active role in ensuring diversity in their events. But because there aren’t many women in technology representatives, they keep approaching the same people. Let’s change that together.

Why we need more women leaders in the community

When I decline an offer and I’m asked to refer other women to take my place, I think of the same women over and over like you most likely do. There just isn’t a big pool to draw from. Imagine the possibility of a vast network where there were too many options. You want more women in tech events? You want more women speakers in conferences? You want more VCs and angels to invest in women? It’s time for YOU to take a stand.

What does that mean? Stop talking about why there aren’t many women in technology and do something about it. The best way? Lead by example. One of the most effective ways to persuade people is to “show, not tell” as marketers and other businesspeople will tell you. I’m doing that with Girl Develop It Philly (GDI) and I can’t tell you how rewarding it has been. I see members come in not knowing a lick of code and hear back about how they just got a raise or completely switched careers. It’s my favorite part and I save every email I get thanking me for bringing GDI to Philly. Since we hit 2 years old in September, I’ve seen an influx of students that started with little to no coding experience becoming teaching assistants and one of them is now even leading classes (Go Sarah Johnson!)

I recently decided to take things a step further by asking members to speak at local events, help organize them, or take a more active leadership role in the community. I keep hearing the same hesitations so I’m including ideas on how to bridge the gap and get a move on.

Overcoming your initial hesitations

Most of the women I talk to respond with this phrase when I approach them: “But I’m not comfortable public speaking.” I’ll let you on in a little secret. No one is. Ever. If they say they are, they’re lying. Think about the long-term effects of having this discomfort. How has it impacted you and others around you? Do you want to be one of the 54% that fear public speaking more than death that they actually gave it a name (Yep, it’s called Glossophobia). It’s difficult to believe you would rather end your life than speak in front of a group of people. Create a possibility of doing it and conquer it with the following:

  • Toastmasters International – A non-profit that provides educational classes in public speaking. It’s cheap, and they have chapters all over Philadelphia. You can take them by day, night, or on the weekends. Look for one that fits your schedule here.
  • Follow @ladies_in_tech on Twitter and subscribe to their blog – Co-founded by our own GDI instructor Jenn Lukas and an incredible line-up of women, it showcases stories of female speakers in technology with anecdotes and tips. Open the site on a new tab right now, it will leave you inspired.
  • Same with speaking.io – Built by a Github employee, it lays out a thorough outline with presentations you can follow along with on everything from planning your talk to reflecting on how it went.
  • Get coached by GDI chapter leader, Jen Myers - If you don’t follow her on Twitter, you should. Jen is the epitome of a leader directly contributing to changing the ratio of women in technology. She offers free virtual office hours and will help you personally. Sign up for one of her oHours slots here. And if you’re a seasoned speaker, read about how Jen goes about mentoring and consider setting up your own coaching calls.
  • Listen to Lisa Marshall’s Public Speaker Podcast – Listen to podcasts about the topic on your commute. I recently interviewed with Lisa on a different podcast she runs. I was so impressed with her energy and confidence that I subscribed to a couple of them. I’m also working on getting her to teach about the topic for GDI (she’s right here in NJ).
  • Follow these public speaking tips by James Altucher – He is one of my favorite bloggers because he writes and speaks in a way that’s instantly relatable. He doesn’t hold anything back and you can’t help but connect with him. In this article, he lists a few ways to start that are  fun as well. Do yourself a favor and subscribe to his blog while you’re at it. With all the emails I receive, his are one of the few I star and make time to read every single time.

From my own personal experience, you’ll find you forget about speaking in public when you’re talking about something you’re passionate about. If you have something in mind, get it out of the way and contact one now. In fact, let your family and friends know that public speaking is one of your goals this year. Go post about it on Twitter and Facebook. You’ll find sharing it holds you to be more accountable for it and propels you to act.

The other response I get is “But I don’t have the time for that right now.” My answer to this is always blunt and straight to the point – that is we make time for the things that are important to us. We are all strapped for time and a common pitfall I see with those that try to expand their schedule is to squeeze more things in the same period length. It’s actually a matter of deciding what matters more to you. I remember reading something that said to start by changing your language. Instead of saying “I don’t have time,” say “It’s not a priority” or “I don’t want to” and you’ll see how the impact of those words make you feel. It’s our choice of how we choose to spend our time. Take a step back and make sure you’re choosing it wisely.

My least favorite remark is “I don’t think I know enough.” Actually, you do and the best way to find out is by asking your friends, co-workers and network what they see you being an authority on. I bet you will find at least one topic. If not, that’s a talk in itself. I guarantee you’ll find something and if you don’t, reach out to me personally (yes, I’m inviting you to send me an email despite being overwhelmed with my inbox as it is because that’s how important this is) and I will find a way for you to start.

I recently met Alexis Ohanian, the founder of Reddit at a local First Round Capital event. He talked about technology, startups, and his new book “Without Their Permission.” I haven’t finished it yet but I read something that resonated with me. It said something to the effect of “I guarantee that you’ll never succeed without trying. Just start – take the first step. You don’t need anyone’s permission.” Translated another way, JFDI.

Ideas on how to get started

Okay, now that we got that out of the way, let’s talk about concrete steps you can take to be a leader in your community. I’ll use Philadelphia as an example since it’s where I’m located:

  1. There are 103 technology groups within a 25-mile radius of Philadelphia according to Meetup. Sign up to those groups that relate to you. Go to their Meetups, meet the organizers, and ask questions. Basically, show your face and contribute to the conversation.
  2. Contribute a video to the High Visibility Project. Made by GDI Chapter Leader, Jen Myers, the site collects stories of women in technology and allows them to contribute their experiences and ideas by video. Submit an entry here. 
  3. Approach one of the local tech groups about giving a “lightening talk”. Lightening talks are short 5 to 10 minute talks about a certain topic or a project you’re working on. Starting small will do wonders in helping you practice.
  4. Build up momentum and lead a whole session on a topic. Again, go with something you’re passionate about or work with a lot.
  5. Start or contribute to blogs. Establish yourself as an authority by writing about your experiences, sharing your lessons learned, or tricks you’ve come across. Don’t have time for a full-blown blog? Set up an account on Medium and you can be up and running in minutes. It doesn’t have to be perfect, just get yourself out there.
  6. Submit a speaker application. The 3rd Annual Philly Women in Technology Summit is on April 12, 2014 and they’re looking for women to lead workshops. Go apply here. The deadline is Jan 24th.
  7. Get involved with Philly Tech Week. The site is in-progress but you can join Technically Philly’s meetup and submit an event proposal here (deadline Jan 17th).

As a well-known advocate for women in technology, I’m taking a step back from directly organizing and speaking at local tech events. So ladies, bring it on. Go set the world on fire. Step it up and expand the network. Your community will thank you and you’ll thank yourself.

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  • images
  • January 7, 2014

City of Medellin from above

While I don’t buy into New Year resolutions, I do believe in constantly setting goals, recalibrating when necessary, and evaluating their progress. It has been exactly two months since I came back from my six-month trip to South America. I’ve been mulling over what to do next and I’ve come up with a plan which just happens to coincide with the beginning of another year. Here’s what’s new and what’s coming:

  1. A new look for the blog. The first redesign since I launched it a couple of years ago. I want to add a couple of more things yet but what do you think so far? Related, I’m recommitting more time to blogging as part of a recent commitment to write 500 words a day.
  2. An expanded set of topics. I discovered new passions and rediscovered some old ones which I plan on writing about. They include traveling (I really can’t wait to share more about my adventures), women’s issues, and challenging the norm.
  3. Different projects. I came back in November with a list of sixteen ideas. After a lot of hemming and hawing, I narrowed them down to three for now. They focus on projects that give back in some capacity. Besides organizing Girl Develop It Philly classes, I’m going to venture into teaching entrepreneurship classes as well. In addition, I’m working on a product invention and will share more details on it soon. To much encouragement from people I talk to about my trip and as way to preserve its memories, I’m also contemplating writing an ebook.

And for a brief look back at the top posts of 2013, I only updated my blog a measly seven times last year. But hey, what do you expect when I was gone for almost half of it? Instead of the usual top five roundup, the two most trafficked posts were Alternatives to Codecademy and F*&# the Status Quo. I’m Quitting My Job, Selling My Stuff, and Traveling the World.

I’m a halfway through my 500 words a day with this post. Off to remind myself why I set this goal in the first place…

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Update 8/26/2013: I made it to Mendoza, Argentina by bus to make up for the loss I incurred during this ordeal with LAN Airlines. Not only did the bus company have a warning on their website when I purchased the ticket about the visa tax, but they also verified it during check-in and boarding. I was in contact with LAN and they did not make any attempts to help reconcile the matter. As the largest airline provider in South America, the customer service I received was sub-par and I warn others about using them in the future. Only they benefit from experiences like this as you`re required to pay for your return flight.

I´m writing this post partially to vent and partially to seek options on what I can do considering what happened yesterday.

In short, I flew into Buenos Aires, Argentina and was forced to leave the country for not paying their Visa tax beforehand. They would not let me use the phone or Internet, go to the US Embassy, or even grab something to eat.

Here`s the longer story.

I caught my flight from Medellin and flew into Ecuador for a hellish 10-hr layover. Because Quito is 1.5 hours from the airport, I stayed overnight and took my connecting flight at 6:55am. After another stop in Guayaquil, we set off for Buenos Aires at 8am and made it to the airport at 4pm (UTC time zone). At the customs window, I was asked if I had paid the Visa tax. I replied no, and inquired if I needed to pay her or go to another window. She said I should have paid it before arriving and left to get a supervisor. After a few minutes, she came back and motioned me to follow her into the Immigration office. I was put in a small, cold room and told to wait for someone to see me.

At this point, I´m tired but a little antsy. I had barely slept at the airport and was looking forward to checking into my hostel. I also had not eaten much besides the eggs they served during my flight and was overdue for lunch. I thought they would just have someone take my payment and I would be sent on my way.

I was dead wrong.

First, I´ve been learning Spanish but I am in no way fluent. I could hear them talking about me but I couldn´t understand their accent besides a few words here and there. About 20 minutes later, a woman from LAN (the airline I took) came down and explained that because I had not paid the Visa tax, I had to return to Ecuador.

¨Seriously? Why can´t I just pay it here?¨

“You can´t. Their policy is you must pay it before you enter the country. You must go back to Ecuador, pay it there, and come back.”

“You want me to fly another 8 hours and back, 16 in all, to make a payment? I don´t understand.”

This went on for a few more minutes. I asked if I can have a friend in Colombia or Ecuador pay the tax for me while I was there. No.

I asked if I can pay double there to stay. No.

I asked if any exceptions were made to that rule. No.

I asked if I can go to the US embassy. No.

I asked if I can make any phone calls. No.

When it finally sank in she was telling the truth, that a hidden camera crew wasn´t going to come out and say it was all a bad joke, I asked if I can go to another Country instead of enduring another long flight. She came back, presented me with options and I ultimately decided to head to Chile because it was closest and my next destination after Argentina. She found a flight that was leaving in 30 minutes and made arrangements to get me on it.

I don´t like to cry, ESPECIALLY in public and as much as I tried to resist I could feel tears well up in my eyes out of frustration. I inquired about the rule. My Lonely Planet guide said I could pay at the airport. When had the policy been altered and why had it changed? As upset as I was and as much as I wanted to be angry at the Argentinian officials, her answer made sense. It`s because the US government has the same regulations and forces Argentinians to go through it as well. When I asked how often this happens, how many times a day she has to send Americans away, she responded, “all day, at least a dozen times.” And that´s just one airline.

When we found out the flight was delayed for 20 minutes, I tried to get online to make hotel arrangements in Chile. At first, they would not let me. Finally, I appealed to their human nature, “What if your sister or daughter was alone in a foreign country, barely spoke the language, and had to go somewhere unprepared at the last minute? Would you send her off at night to find a place to stay?” We found a terminal that had free WIFI, and with a slow connection, I  made a reservation and cancelled mine in Argentina.

I was chaperoned like a criminal, with the woman from LAN directing me on where I can go. Exhausted, spent, cold and hungry, I boarded my fourth flight in the last 24 hours to made it into Chile around 8pm. They require a Visa too but have a window at the airport where you can pay. They call it a reciprocity fee because the US government makes them pay the same amount to visit.

I looked into the regulations to try to make sense of them this morning. I had two options to pay for the tax: at the airport I was departing from or by credit card. The US government does have the same policy and Argentina recently changed theirs to match it. I don´t understand the benefit. Why make someone go back to where they were to pay the tax? Who benefits besides the airlines? I had spent almost $1,000 to fly from Colombia to Argentina. My flight to Chile wasn’t free either. I had to pay to leave.

What am I missing here? Did they have a right to deny me a phone call/visit to the US Embassy? Did I have other options I didn´t consider? A friend told me it was the airlines responsibility to make sure I had paid the tax before leaving. Is this true and what can I do about it? Will my travel insurance cover my expenses? Some of these answers I need to look into myself but I am still tired and don’t have the energy to fight anyone on the phone.

Lesson learned: Double check entry requirements before leaving the Country.

I became a US citizen last year and as happy as I am about it, I wish I would have been more patient and applied for dual citizenship so I can use another passport for countries with visa requirements. Because we make it so hard for foreigners from some countries to enter, they´re fighting back by implementing similar regulations. I can´t blame them for that.

For now, I´m going to figure out what to do in Chile. Maybe, just maybe, I´ll try Argentina again. I snapped the pictures below from the airplane. It looks too beautiful to miss despite all the trouble.

View of Andes Mountains

View of Andes Mountains

View of Buenos Aires

View of Buenos Aires

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View of Quito, Ecuador from La Basilica del Voto Nacional.

Balance. Every time I think of the word, a picture of a judgment scale comes to mind.

Like many people, I like it in almost every regard and most especially when it comes to reciprocity. I grew up learning to mutually give in return and that notion stayed with me in adulthood. In lieu of feeling entitled to others, I prefer doing things myself.

Which is why the story of my first day traveling solo was so eventful.

Take 1: Finding Oscar in the Lost and Found

I had a long 6-hour layover in Miami before I was due in Ecuador. My backpack was digging into my back so I spent the first half hour reorganizing the contents. I pulled out my Nexus to get online when I noticed the battery was almost dead. That’s when I discovered I had forgotten to pack my charger. There are two electronic stores in the Miami airport and both stores didn’t have the one I needed in stock. I was contemplating getting a taxi to venture outside the airport when I had the brilliant idea to go to the lost and found section to see if I can get one there.

When I finally found it, I played it off like I had just lost mine. The man behind the counter took out a catalogued binder, leafed through it to the current date and told me one had not been turned in yet that day. I asked if he had any that had not been claimed that he can give to me anyway. He stated that each item is itemized and sold to Goodwill after 30 days.

“Well then, can I buy one from you?”

“Sorry, ma’am. Protocol prohibits me from doing so. But I can help you find the nearest store.”

He started a Google search when I heard a voice behind me exclaim, “Your best bet is the Best Buy. It is about 15 mins away by taxi.” I turned around to find an attractive, 30ish, well-build, groomed man with a suitcase. After I thanked both of them for their help, I went downstairs only to discover I had gone to the wrong floor. I turned around when I ran into the same man who had just suggested Best Buy.

“You’re lost, aren’t you? I know this is going to sound strange but I can give you a ride and back. I have some time to kill.”

Um, yeah. Time to kill ME I thought. I don’t want to die before I step onto my first destination. I hesitated for a minute while I gave him the once-over.

He introduced himself as Oscar and told me he was in town from Boston to take care of his mother who was ill.  “Are you sure you don’t mind? Okay, let’s do it.”

During the car ride, we hit it off right away. He shared stories about his gay partner, his disapproving father, and his adopted African-American son and I told him about my trip and why I was going. We had a lot in common and he ended up inviting me to have lunch with his Mother after I picked up my charger. It was a fun excursion and he drove me back with plenty of time to catch my flight.

Take 2: Rescued by Juan & Maria

I requested an exit row when I learn the middle seat is empty so I can stretch out during my 3-hour ride to Ecuador. A short, stocky and what I assume Ecuadorian man sits by the window and I take the aisle seat.

When the pilot announces we’re 20 minutes away, I pull out the printed directions I received from the Program Director at the Spanish Immersion School I enrolled in. I chose to participate in a home stay which means I’ll be staying with a local family while I study. One of the sheets has a list of the families and their addresses. I look for mine and notice it is not on the list.

I go back to the email that had the attachment and ensure I have the correct name.

Yep. No “Familia Ponce” on the list.


There’s a link to a map in the email and I ask the flight attendant if WIFI is available on the plane or the airport so I can grab the address.

“No, senorita.”


I look over to man sitting to my right and strike up a conversation. His name is Juan and although his English is not very good I’m able to learn he is in fact from Ecuador and he’s returning from a business trip in Miami. He had missed his flight the previous day and his wife will be picking him up from the airport. I explain my predicament and ask if there’s a nearby Internet cafe where I can figure out the address. He says he’ll ask around when we land.

I gather my hiking backpack from baggage claim and walk out to the lobby, thinking that he may have left during the 30-minutes it took for me to finally get bag. I see someone waving to me in the corner of my eye and discover him standing there with his beautiful wife. He asks for the URL in my email and types it in his wife’s phone. It’s a slow connection but we finally find it. I breathe a sigh of relief and thank them for their help. By this time, at least 45 minutes have passed and I can’t stop expressing my gratitude. They tell me to barter with the taxi before getting into the car as they usually double the fare for tourists. I assure them I will and turn around to head towards the exit when Juan stops me.

“Actually, it late. We give you ride.”

“No, no, you’ve done enough. Thank you for the offer but I will be fine. Don’t let me take up anymore of your time.”

“We go that way too. It no problem.”

I nod and follow them as tears well up in my eyes. This couple had no idea who I was an hour ago, they took time out of their night to help me despite our language barrier, and on top of that they were going the extra mile to ensure I got to my destination safe and sound.

As we drive to Quito, Juan and his wife, Maria, point out attractions and make suggestions on where I should go along the way. We end up getting lost and having to ask for directions multiple times. When we finally get there, it’s 9:30pm, two hours later than when I was due. I take money out of my waist belt and go to thank Juan yet again as Maria talks to my house Mother. He shakes his head feverishly and puts out his hand, refusing to accept it. “When I was stuck in Miami yesterday, a stranger help me. I pay it back. Please, no. Just be safe.” He asks for my phone and inputs his number and his wife’s number, telling me to call if I need anything. I ask him to include his address so I can send him a postcard. He obliges, we all hug, and they get back into their car for what I learn will be another 40-minute drive until they get home.

I don’t know what would have happened without these two random acts of kindness. I could have gone without a charger or taken a taxi to get one. I would have probably found another way to get to my destination but I can’t say either would have been as pleasant.

I learned an important lesson the first day. Sometimes the balance scale doesn’t perfectly align and it’s okay. Sometimes, you have to place faith in others and allow them to help you. And sometimes, all you can do in return is continue the cycle and pay it forward in the future.

Thank you Oscar, Juan, and Maria for that message and for making my first day one to remember. <3