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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! 

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  • September 11, 2015

#afterseptember11

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.

quebec-city-niagara-falls-ithaca

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:

"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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  • 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.

Shit.

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.”

Uh-oh.

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

 

This is a straight line. It is fucking boring.

My life hasn’t been “normal” by any means.

I didn’t have a childhood – had to grow up fast.

My family were refugees of the Persian Gulf War.

I started working at a young age of nine, helping my family run a 24-hour convenience store.

I didn’t have the typical college experience – I worked two jobs to put myself through school.

I started a company a couple of years later that was later acquired in 2011.

All while I had limited opportunities as it took me 22 years of living in the U.S. to become a citizen.

Comparing my path against my friends since the sale has been the most ordinary my life has been. I have a 9 to 5 job with health insurance, a stable paycheck, and co-workers who have become like a second family. Despite running Girl Develop It Philly and everything else I’m involved in, I have more free time than ever – something that had been unattainable to me for decades. I’ve had time to think about going the predictable route – settling down, getting married, having kids, etc. and it’s something I’ve come to think is a possibility. At 31-years-old, things generally seem good.

However, I haven’t been able to become accustomed to the rut I fell into. I go to work, come home, eat dinner, go to sleep, get up and do it all over again. I’ve had this persistant gnawing feeling at the back of my mind that something wasn’t right but I was unable figure it out. A recent vacation to Costa Rica brought it to the forefront.

All I’ve known my whole life is hard work. I’ve struggled to attain everything I’ve achieved. And you know what? I’m damn tired. Burned out. Exhausted.

I used to quote the mantra “work hard now, play hard later” to justify my work ethic in college, at the first consulting company I was involved in, and later at 123LinkIt. My family and friends were in a constant battle for my attention and that chant would pull me through tough times. My perception of it now? Fuck that motto right in la culata. I want to go back in time and slap myself silly every time I contemplated that sentence.  While I was away, I was mesmerized by the climate, mountains, jungles, animals and most of all, the people in Costa Rica. They work to live, coveting relationships with loved ones over the daily grind. I realized that wanderlust and more meaningful relationships are what I want during this stage of my life. To put my career on the back burner for a change and discover who I am without my laptop.

It leads to the reason I’m traveling. I don’t do anything half-way, which is why it’s for a prolonged duration. I will be flying into Quito, Ecuador on May 30th where I’ll stay with a host family while immersing myself in the Spanish language and culture for the first 6 weeks. I move on to Colombia, maybe Venezuela, head down to Brazil, then Argentina and loop back around to Chile and Peru, where I’ll return right before Thanksgiving. I have an idea of where I want to go and what I want to do, but I haven’t made specific plans besides booking a trek on the Inca trail. It’s a solo trip, I don’t know a single person, and I’m hoping family and friends will visit along the way.

My life’s path has been restrictive due to circumstances beyond my control and for the first time in my life, I have the freedom to steer away and do what I CHOOSE rather than the limited scope I have been given. I’m looking forward to traveling towards undefined destinations and letting things happen as they may.

When I come back, I plan to tackle the Middle East and then who knows what else. All I do know is that it won’t be following the status quo.

T-10 days.

P.S. Recommended reading: “Top 5 Regrets of the Dying” – A nurse outlines profound, common themes she witnesses among her ailing patients. The first two ring truest for me.

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  • images
  • January 3, 2013

 

My idea book

I still use this notebook, first mentioned in “Notepad of Startup Ideas” 

For the last two years, I’ve been following Chris Guillebeau’s Annual Review outline to reflect on the past year. I make a list of what went well and what could have been better, then I compare it with my notes from the previous year. Without hesitation, 2012 has been the absolute best year of my life. I’ve grown tremendously, achieved consequential milestones, and accomplished some really neat things if I do say so myself. I didn’t realize just how much until I wrote it all down. When I’m an old, wrinkly grandma, I imagine it’ll fun to reminisce and tell my grandkids about what a geek I used to be. Hopefully they’ll think I’m the cooler than I really am. While I’ll keep the full review to myself, I’ll share some of the fabulous things that made this year so exceptional:

  • I moved into my very own apartment for the first time. Twenty-eight years after living at home (As embarrassing as it is, it was a great decision as it made it easier to put myself through school and start a business with lower costs), a one-month stint at an ex’s and eight hellish months with a roommate, I made a home in a cozy studio in Center City, Philadelphia.
  • I turned 30. Related, I’m really an adult! I don’t know why but sometimes I still have to remind myself of that.
  • I mentored and spoke at many events including Lean Philly, WordPress Philly, IgnitePhilly, Startup Weekend, Temple University, and other tech meetups.
  • I helped organize the first Women in Tech Summit in Philadelphia to great success.
  • I finally became a U.S. citizen after 22 years! The link will say much more than I can in this short summary.
  • I became a foodie. If you talk to old friends or family, they will tell you I had a particularly selective palate. Once I started making money, that went out the window. I now loooove sushi, I’ve had caviar, quail’s egg, beef tongue, bone marrow and other things I can’t think of at the moment that I never would have tried. I think my brain chose this interim picky mentality to lessen the blow of how destitute I was. At least that’s what I’m telling myself!
  • I ran the Broad Street run. From the encouragement of my coworkers (4 out of 6 of us did this), I shocked myself by agreeing to do this. While I could have trained better and I hurt my knee during the last two miles (I kept going because I didn’t want to stop which was a bad idea), I’m glad I pushed myself. Will I do it again this year? HELL. NO. Forget about it.
  • I made some really good close friends. I’ve always preferred a few intimate friends to a large number of acquaintances and it’s difficult for me to let someone in. A special shout-out to Lisa Burgess who I absolutely adore.
  • I went to more concerts – Blue October, Fun., M83, Foster & the People, Florence and the Machine to name those I remember at the moment.
  • I got my motorcycle permit! The obvious goal for this year – get a bike! Also, learn how to ride one. Probably in the reverse order.
  • I learned to code enough to call myself a front-end developer and created my first site. Thanks Girl Develop It (GDI)! :-)
  • I worked my first full year at NetLine. I couldn’t ask for better coworkers. And yay to health insurance and stable pay checks. Who knew how glorious the two would be? I went to a REAL dentist the other day, not the Temple Dentistry Clinic where incompetent students work on your teeth for five times as long for a reduced rate. (Do you sense a little bitterness there, because I totally meant it that way. I hate that place!).
  • Thanks to my new citizenship status, I voted in my first election and even better, the candidate I selected was the victor.
  • Again, because of my citizenship status, I was able to get my U.S. passport and travel on my first International trip to Costa Rica.
  • …where I bungee-jumped! This deserves its own bullet. It was windy, foggy and raining, the ideal setting for someone who doesn’t normally participate in thrill-seeking activities (/end sarcasm  and the tram was swaying side to side as we descended into the middle of the rain forest. I looked at my guide like he had two heads, “we’re really going through with this in THIS weather?” He had to count down to 5 three times, peel my fingers from the railing and push me over (Okay, not really). In short while I’m glad I had the experience, I’ll never, and I mean NEVER EVER EVER, do this again.
  • I got Lasik surgery. After 15 years of being legally blind (maybe I’m exaggerating a little but it sure felt like it), I still wake up from time to time, pause, and marvel at the wonders of science.
  • I donated to more charities than all my adult years combined. My go-to one at the moment: Prajwala India which helps stop sex trafficking in India. The recent horrific gang rape of the 23-year-old student who died a week ago opened my eyes to the horrors women experience there. I’m hoping the woman who runs the organization will get back to me about letting GDI Philly redo their site (fingers crossed). If you’re inclined to help, the donation page can be hard to find so I’m linking to it here.
  • Girl Develop It Philly hit some great milestones. Note: there are two links there.
  • I assisted TechGirlz in raising money to help spread awareness of the fun of technology to middle-school girls. One day, I may write a blog post about how I was able to raise $2k in an hour from Twitter by capitalizing on a hot news item.
  • I supplemented my income in various ways. From blogging, AirBnb, GDI and my full-time job, I was busy working all the angles.
  • Girl Develop It and 123LinkIt received a lot of press mentions, including TechnicallyPhilly, Flying Kite, WHYY, NPR & the front page of the Sunday Philadelphia Inquirer (woot, woot!).

I can’t wait to have enough of a collection of these reviews that I’ll be able to look back and reminisce about how far I’ve come. Five years ago, I had outrageous dreams about hitting it big while working at my first partnership where I was earning just under $20,000 a year. Ten years prior, I was slaving away at two under-the-table jobs to put myself through school. It’s humbling to reflect at how things have progressed. I can’t wait to move forward even more this year.

Before I end this post, I have to take a moment and say thank you to all the wonderful people who have had an impact on my life – I extend my gracious gratitude and wish you all a happy 2013!