Saturday, September 21, 2013

Endeavor Team Challenge: The Decision and Prepartion

I'm the sort of person that sees videos of, and reads books about Olympians, Navy Seals, Base Jumping, Army Ranger challenges, people fishing in 100 foot seas, climbing Mt. Everest, surfing giant waves, Special Forces training, scuba diving caves, riding bikes thousands of kilometers, running hundreds of miles through deserts, lifting insane amounts of weight, and performing any other type of physical or mental challenge and I say, "I want to do that!"

Some people may think that wanting to do risky things is crazy, but all of my life I have been compelled to push my physical limits. I find pleasure in testing my body, in seeing just how far I can go. Setting a challenging goal, working to get there, then rising to the occasion is rewarding; being a sportswoman makes me feel alive and happy.

Usually the barrier to doing things like jumping from planes, reaching the summit of Mt. Everest, or diving in caves is lack of money, or a life choice (I became a teacher, not a member of the military or a professional athlete/water woman). However, when the opportunity arose for me to compete in the Endeavor Team Challenge, none of those barriers existed. I immediately recruited a partner and entered the race. This would be my first ever endurance race; a 30+ hour challenge over 45 miles in the high Sierras.

After deciding to do the Endeavor Team Challenge, my partner, Mike Harding, and I had about four months to prepare for the race.

How do you prepare for a race that consists of so many skills? The simple answer is that my life up to that point had already prepared me for the race. The events in the race would cover running, hiking, swimming, kayaking, mountaineering, obstacle courses, strength events, and mental challenges; all things that both Mike and I had done at some point in our lives.

For the months leading up to the event, I continued to train CrossFit four times a week, lift weights three times a week, do a long, weighted hike at least once a week, run intervals twice a week, and mix swimming, rowing, rock climbing, and skills work (like tying knots) into my program here and there.

Preparation became a key component in the success that Mike and I would have when the race came around. Because we did hikes together frequently, Mike and I encountered most of the problems that many people would have to face during the actual race. Some of those problems were fueling and foot care. Though caloric intake and feet don't seem to be at the top of the list for training for an endurance race, eating the wrong food or not taking care of feet could very well take us out of the race.

During our first 20-mile test hike, both Mike and I got blisters on our feet, suffered stomach problems, and became dehydrated; not the scenario that we were hoping for! By the end of the hike, I could barely walk because my feet had become so painful; I had blisters on the balls of both feet and on the tip of one toe. Besides the blisters, my stomach was bloated and tender from all of the power gels, bars, and other sugar-laden food I had consumed.

Mike wasn't fairing so well either. About halfway through our hike I had run out of water (!) so Mike had to give me some of his, which made both of our intakes wane. Being that it was about 90 degrees outside, we had to consume more, so we quickly ran out of water. With about 5 miles to go, we found a swimming hole, cooled off, and drank some of that water. When we had finished and arrived at the car, we both had the feeling that our first long training hike was quite a disaster! We planned to do the same hike in 5 weeks to try and improve on our performance.

In between our 20 miles test hikes,  my training intensified a bit. I added in shorter, sprint-style hikes in which I'd wear a 20# weight vest and hike at about 90-100% uphill for about 30 minutes. These hikes built my capacity to work at a higher output over an extended period of time. In addition to those sprint hikes, I added a couple of double days during which I would do Olympic lifting or other heavy lifting and a short metabolic conditioning session in the morning, then another metabolic conditioning session at night. On some days I'd swim or row in the morning, either as intervals or as a long, slow distance. One day I put in 13.2 miles on the rower at about 80% effort; another day I swam 24 x 25 meters underwater with 20 seconds rest in between each 25 meter swim. The days were varied, but I was always trying to build my work capacity in some way.

When it was time for our second 20-mile tester, Mike and I were better prepared all the way around. Instead of leaving mid-day in 90 degree heat, we left the parking lot at 6 am in 55 degree heat. We brought an extra 3 liters of water, and had refined our nutrition plan. I wore wool socks and had some "hike goo" on my feet so as to prevent blisters.

As far as nutrition went, for the second test hike my strategy had changed to whole foods with no added sugars or preservatives. Because I normally eat whole foods, I figured that I should stay the same for long events too. For fast sugar (a good balance of glucose and fructose) I brought squeezable "Ella's Organic" baby food (both fruit and vegetable mixes). This was both pure and easy to digest; it took the place of energy goos. For a fat source, I brought squeezable nut butter, mostly macadamia nut butter because I did not want to overload on the PUFAs in almond butter. In addition to the nut butter as a fat source, I also brought squeezable coconut butter and oil. A protein source that was easily digestible was a little harder to figure out, but I settled on making myself meatballs and meatloaf. The recipe was simple as to not upset my stomach: salt, pepper, olive oil, and organic green chiles.

Besides those primary sources of fuel listed above, I also brought along baked green beans, or baked zucchini for an added carbohydrate. As far as electrolytes went, many drinks like Gatorade, nuun tablets, and other energy drinks bug my stomach too (surprise!), so instead of drinking my electrolytes, I took "salt stick" salt capsules. The capsules are composed of magnesium, potassium and sodium, so they take the place of sugary electrolyte drinks. I took one pill every hour.

This hike went better! Mike and I took shorter breaks, didn't get blisters, and avoided dehydration. I also recovered faster and did not feel spent and tired for days following our effort.

After this hike, Mike and I had a few more weeks until the race, so we continued to train various modalities and skills and lift heavy. Some Sundays Mike and I practiced the CrossFit portion of the event since that was one of the few "knowns" in the challenge. Practicing the CrossFit portion gave us the opportunity to see how we would lift the log/railroad tie, and how we would break up reps. It proved to be valuable information when we had to do the challenge at 3 am during the race!

All in all, preparation set us up for an easier race. By no means were we great at everything, but we did not have any doubts going in, that we were weak in any one area.

Four days out from the race, we arrived at altitude (7,000+ feet) to try and adjust before the start. Three days out from the race we were doing sprint repeats, swimming easy, and walking in the hills. Two days out from the race I did a long hill run, some bouldering with Chris, and some swimming. The day before the race I ran and swam again. Because we took a few days to get used to the thin air, come race time we felt no ill-effects due to altitude.

After four months and a life time of training, Mike and I were ready to go!




Monday, April 29, 2013

Truth's Blessing


Would I have ever found out that American spaghetti is terrible had I not taught a class full of Italian girls who made me the best spaghetti of my life? Probably not.

Truth's Blessing
In life, is knowing the terrible, dirty, truth and being sad about it, better than knowing nothing at all?

This afternoon, as I was walking out of my classroom and into the sunny Santa Barbara afternoon, a student stopped me and asked an interesting question. 


Mei Lun, a student from China, asked me, "Teacher, why is it that American education is focused on telling students what is wrong and evil about society?" 

She continued, "In China, we always learned great things about our country. We learned about our long history, our dominance, our great abilities in art and science. We learned about innovative thinkers and artists. We learned about the value of communism and hard work. We were happy at school." 

She added, "Here (in the U.S.), I am afraid for my son to go to school, because I am worried that he will only hear terrible things. He will be afraid of the world instead of excited to be in it. He will become cynical."

After Mei Lun told me her opinion, and asked me that tough question, "Why does the American education system focus on what is wrong with society?" I had to stop and think.


Here is what I said:


"I think that the American education system reflects our culture. In America, we (the people) want to know what the problem is so we can fix it. In the most perfect Democracy, the people have the power to fix their own problems, so this system is reflected in the best educational settings. In China, I think the education system also mirrors the culture. There, the government deals with the problems, the people are not entrusted with that responsibility. So, I think systematically people are told the highlights and the problems are kept secret."

Though this is a pretty simple analysis of two models of education, I think it conveys what, idealistically happens in both countries. Since I am not an expert in the Chinese system of education, I'll add to my thoughts on the American education system (the unbroken version).


First, I think that the best schools and teachers in the American education system do not focus on what is bad and wrong with society, but they focus on the truth, and what students can do to make our society better. 


In my classes, I tell students about issues that are important and eminent. I want students to know what troubles they will face, what issues are pressing, and what needs fixing in society. But I do not stop at educating students about problems. After I present these problems, I often try to go a step further and let students know what they can do to improve society. I want students to know that problems exist, and that they have the ability to create solutions and foster change.


Second, I think that in an ideal classroom/ educational setting, it is the responsibility of the educator to show students that life is not always perfect, and that they should have the skills needed to deal with a sour situation. 


The reason why social studies and humanities classes teach about terrible things is because people need to know that these things happen so that they can stop them from happening. Educating people about the ills in society makes them part of those ills, for better or worse, and they must choose to do something (or not do something) about those things. The beauty in education is knowing what is going on in the world, and choosing what you want to do about it. 


Third, I'd like to think that by educating students about abhorrent occurrences, they will prevent them from happening in the future. 

Students are entitled to know what is going wrong, and what has gone wrong before in this world so that they can learn from those things and not repeat them.


Though Mei Lun is long gone (I won't see her again until Wednesday), I want to tell her this:  


I hope that students have teachers who explain sad and difficult situations with thoughtfulness and courage. I hope that teachers do not shelter students from reality, but give them tools to deal with it, and then to make it better. I hope that students realize that truth is scary and sad, that the world is difficult, but that knowing this is true and knowing that reality is changeable, is a blessing.





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Sunday, July 08, 2012

Ever Changed

Ever Changed
This morning I awoke to the call to prayer at 3:45 am and a dusty stream of light filling my room. The birds were chirping as the mullah sang, "Allah u AKBAR," into the mosque's loudspeaker. I thought, "how does that mosque always have electricity for that loudspeaker when most buildings around here have no power at all?" As I sat up in bed on my final morning in Kabul, and yearned for the cool California coastal air, I realized that Afghanistan has changed me forever.
Leaving the country this time, I understand that over the past two years, I have grown and experienced life in a way that makes it impossible not to be deeply affected by the things I have experienced, the things I have seen, the people I have met, and the things that I now know.
Splitting time between my country, America, and my second home, Afghanistan, has constantly reminded me of the beauty and luck that life holds. I didn't choose to be American, yet I was born into the privileged life that is mine. I am eternally blessed to be an American, to be a free roaming, freethinking, wild spirit and to be able to choose my own life, my own path, my own love, and my own home. I am blessed to wake up each day to a stable, war-free, clean-aired, organically farmed, absolutely beautiful country where I can drive myself anywhere I choose. I was born into a culture that accepts I am an independent dreamer, a woman who has no limits. I can do and be anything that I want to because I am an American.
After living here, I know that I will never be the same.
I will never take for granted those that love me. During my first year here I was lucky enough to meet Chris, my love. I was not looking for him, but I met him among the dust and concrete of his military base; we were both lifting weights. He is my match; my dream partner and I will never forget how he changed his own life to be with me.
Throughout my time here, my father and Cheril, my mother, brother and Aubrey, sister, Julie, Kat and Matt, Steph and Mike, Donny, Anne, Colin, and countless others continued to stay in contact with me; they never let me forget that my home is in America, that my life in America was waiting for me to return, and that I had a network of amazing family and friends who I could always count on. I will always love each and every one of them for their dedication and support.
Though my body will never be the same, though I come away from my time here having a much weaker immune system due to the constant exposure to unclean water, food, and air, I have never felt spiritually stronger. Though I know that I may get sick more easily, and that it will take time for me to regain the total health that I enjoy in the states, I would never trade my experiences here for that which I have gained. In giving up a tad of physical health, I have gained the mental strength to always be honest and true to what I believe in. I am tougher and more determined to be the best person that I can be, to take advantage of all that I have access to because I know that there are people far less fortunate than I am that will NEVER be able to live the life that I do.
I will also never forget the amazing people that I have met here. My friends here have taught me that even though life may be hard, even though life may look hopeless and desolate, there are people, and places to love in Afghanistan, there is the hope for a better future. Even in the most dire circumstances, Yosuf, Hadi, Nasir and their families, Parwiz, Ehsan, Rabia and her family, all of my friends at Eggers, Steve and Tara, Noor, Aisha, Sohaila, Muzhgan, Mustafa, and Aziza and many others have shown me that making the most of life, and continuing to fight for what you believe in is important.
There are countless realizations I have had, countless lessons I have learned, but now I must catch my flight to Dubai. Today, I leave this place behind and move on knowing that I will never be the same.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Beyond the Barbed Wire

A "Raiders" fan in the heart of Kabul
Students at Kabul Education University working in the new Student Access Center; an English Library.
Palestinian dress, Kabul garden. Jaala enjoying the afternoon beyond the barbed wire.

Kabul: Beyond the Barbed Wire

 Kabul is a place full of contradictions. It is a land framed by barbed wire, filled with security forces, police, guards and guns; littered with trash and poverty, dusty from deforestation. Widows and homeless men beg in the streets, poor children sell tissues and ask for money as they wave incense in front of cars to ward off the "evil eye." Students rush through traffic to make it to run-down schools, most lacking libraries, computer labs, books, even running water. Sheep and their herders weave in and out of cars blocking the motorcade full of hummers rushing to get to their next base. Boys play soccer among the ruins of Darulaman Palace; girls cook at home, behind the protective compound walls.

But beyond the obvious police state, beyond the poverty and dust lies the most important things which cannot be seen upon first glance. Working beyond the barbed wire, the educated, the critical thinkers, the youth, the people who yearn and work for freedom and economic development are laying the ground work for a better reality. Beyond the gray skies and polluted water, there are clean ornamental gardens and thriving farms. Beyond the homelessness and abuse, there are non-profits, schools, and businesses run by Afghans who are all trying their best to educate the youth and give people a chance to become players in their own lives.

Being here for the third time in two years, I can see that although contradictions exist, my Afghan friends and colleagues are working hard to stamp out the negatives that pervade daily life. My former students and colleagues at Kabul Education University are a great example of this.

Two of my senior students from last year have obtained jobs in their own English Department as professors. They are trying their best to use new teaching methods; to be good examples for the pre-service teachers and students from other departments whom they are currently teaching.

Four more of my former students are going in to the final round of the Fulbright Scholarship process; they are all trying to go to the United States for two years to study for master's degrees in Education or Teaching English so that they can bring back the knowledge that they have learned and further educate their students here.

Many of the professors in the English Department at Kabul Education University have become involved in the first ever Master's degree program in TESOL (in Afghanistan), taught in English. Four of the professors are students in the program while many others are professors in the program. They all know that the more knowledge in their field they can obtain, the more effective they will be in making the education system better in Afghanistan. The current department head said it best, "Facilities can be blown up, computers can fail, paint can peel off, but the knowledge our students and teachers are getting can never be taken away."

Though the first thing that you see when you land in Kabul, Afghanistan is barbed wire wrapped around a dusty military complex, what you don't see beyond the barbed wire is what is most important. Each day, international civilians and military members work to re-build Afghanistan from the ground up. They do this by offering training to Afghans who can then extend their knowledge to others; this is the most valuable action being taken in the country.

Happy teachers ready to spread some knowledge at KEU
Beyond the barbed wire the situation is improving; hopefully one day the walls and wire will come down, so the view of this promising country will not be obscured any longer.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Cheers! Kabul

New subject, same students. Many of my old students are attending my new class; I guess they have missed me!
Graffiti on crumbling buildings with no plans for reconstruction.
Haven't I seen this guy somewhere before?

Being back in Kabul after a 4 month long hiatus is interesting. During this trip back, I have had many bouts of Deja Vu; the guards at my old apartment are the same, my driver is friends with my former driver, so he knows that I like to lift weights, the policeman at the gate at school remembers that I don't eat bread, so he didn't offer any to me when it was lunch time and I walked by (he offered chick pea soup instead), the old beggar lady in burqa outside of the grocery store told me she hasn't seen me in a longtime, the biting cold is still unbearable, the walk to Camp Eggers still haunts me, I can still smell the wood stoves burning across the street from my place, my students ask me how Chris is, and the azan (call to prayer) still shakes me from my slumber before dawn.

Through all of these encounters, I can't help but think that I am Norm and Kabul is my "Cheers."

For those of you who are too young to remember, "Cheers" was a television show in the 80's about a bar in Boston. Norm was a regular at the bar and whenever he walked into the place, everyone would yell his name "Norm!" to greet him.

The theme song to "Cheers" went like this:
Making your way in the world today takes everything you've got.
Taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot.
Wouldn't you like to get away?


Sometimes you want to go

Where everybody knows your name,

and they're always glad you came.


You wanna be where you can see,

our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows
your name.

As funny as it may seem, I have been singing this song in my head ever since I got here. Though I didn't necessarily want to "get away" from the happy life that I live in the states, I did want to come back here to remember how wonderful my life really is. Just as I have written before, I think it is necessary for us to leave behind what we love in order to realize how amazing the things that we have are. So, I have gone away to Kabul to remember how lovely my life is in America.


It is ironic that the place I have to go where everybody knows my name is Kabul. Afghans are awesome like that. They have the best memories of any people I have ever known. If you tell an Afghan something, they most likely will never forget it. But you have to be careful, Afghans expect the same from you! I remember that one student told me how many siblings she had, and what all of their names were. She felt bad later on when I asked her again about her siblings and what their names were. Testing her, I asked if she remembered all of the things I had told her about my family, and she proceeded to repeat all of the information I had mentioned the week before. So this, it ends up, is the place in the world where everybody (who has met me!) remembers my name. Go figure!

And finally, here, everyone's troubles are the same. It is true, our troubles are all pretty similar in Kabul. From the poorest person on up, we are all cold, we all are hoping for clean air, clean water, and clean food, we are all hoping for peace. Though the foreigners here have all of these things outside of the country, temporarily they have to live alongside their Afghan counterparts and experience a fraction of their suffering. We all worry about suicide blasts, inclement weather, illegal checkpoints, and kidnappings. We all worry about money and time. We all go to sleep hoping to wake up to a better day tomorrow.

So, as I wander through these familiar streets, consistently being greeted by people whom I know, always seeing things I have seen before, I can't help but think: I am Norm and Kabul is my "Cheers."

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Monday, December 05, 2011

Altitude Training

View of the hills from Babur Gardens, Kabul.
Hanging out at Afghan Culture House, Kabul.

With the absence of oxygen, a human will die. But, strangely, with just a little oxygen the human body will become stronger.

Ever since the 1968 Olympics, which were held at about 7,000 feet altitude in Mexico City, Mexico, people have been curious about what competing at or training at altitude does to the body of an elite athlete. Many people were worried that the decrease in oxygen available at such heights would adversely affect the performance of endurance athletes, but that the thin air would cause less air resistance and help out anaerobic (sprint-oriented) athletes. The hypothesis was roughly true; many records fell at the shorter distances during those games.

After the Olympics though, the curiosity about altitude's affect on athletes did not fade. People began to realize that there are definite and measurable benefits to training at altitude and competing at sea level. While training at altitude, an athlete's red blood cells increase, VO2 max is heightened, and EPO also has been proven to increase. All of this means that an athlete's body adapts to working with less oxygen. When people who train and live at high altitudes return to sea level to compete, they are able to use the abundance of oxygen at lower altitudes to their advantage.

Though it happens slowly and for better or worse, an amazing characteristic that all humans possess is the ability to adapt to challenging circumstances.

In two weeks, I will be doing a little altitude training of my own; I will be returning to the beautiful, yet tumultuous city of Kabul, Afghanistan.

Returning to Afghanistan is altitude training at its finest. Not only will I be pushing my athletic limits in the thin air of this 6,000 meter high land, I will be navigating the politically tense and economically depressed reality of daily life in a city that has been at war for three decades now.

Why am I going back to Afghanistan when I have just recently returned from a 10-month long teaching fellowship there? The short answer is, to teach. I have been awarded a grant by the Department of State to return to the University to conduct a teacher training workshop.

Another answer is, How can I not?

How can I not return to a place that is in desperate need of education, when I have the skills to help, and the means to go there?

How can I not return to a country that is at war, partially due to the fact that an uneducated and illiterate majority were strong-armed and conned into believing that the Taliban would rule them with a fair and objective hand, when I know that the education I can offer them will chip away at the ignorance which has landed them in this situation?

How can I not return to a city that welcomed me with open arms, and asked me to be part of their family, part of their history, part of their lives as if I was their sister or daughter?

Being back in Kabul will be challenging. Not only will it be harder to breathe, but it will be harder to ignore the poverty and injustice that is rampant in that land. It will be a strain to feel the dust in my lungs, to see the bombed out buildings, to hear the widows begging for a cent or two, to listen to the sad stories of my friends. It will be a test of both the body and the spirit.

But I welcome this experience with an open heart and mind. Just as the absence of oxygen will make me a stronger athlete, so will the testing of my spirit make me a better person. Being with my friends in Kabul, living their lives, knowing their hardships and their happiness, reminds me why life is so special. Without challenges, how would we ever know how good life is; without adversity, how would we know how strong we are?

This is "altitude training" at its best. This is why I am returning to Afghanistan.

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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Passage of Time

Wondering where all of the time went; Carpinteria, CA (2011)
Sunset over Wadi Rum, Jordan (2007 with Global Majority)

Time is sneaky. One minute a watch breaks and the next minute you realize two months have gone by. One minute you are a ten year old girl riding a banana seat bike through the streets of a quiet neighborhood at dusk with your friend behind you grasping tightly to your shirt, and the next minute you are peeking through the curtains of an apartment building in downtown Kabul, wishing you were a ten year old boy flying a kite outside. One minute you are desperately hoping for the freedom you once had, the next minute you are remembering the endless hours of free time you loathed.

Time is sneaky like that. You never know when it is going to fly by or drag on.

If I have learned anything in my life, it is that I can't forget to cherish time because each moment is precious in its own way, then it is gone like the sweet smell of rain on newly wet pavement as it disappears in the afternoon sun.

Yes, time is sneaky.

Though I don't remember quite when it happened, both of my watches ceased to work shortly after I returned from my one month jaunt in Italy. Panicked, I quickly figured out how to set my alarm clock on my cell phone. Thinking I would get a new watch battery as soon as possible, I forgot about my watches and went on with my life.

Shortly after both of my watches broke, I competed in my first triathlon since being back in the states. The morning of the triathlon I woke up (to my cell phone alarm, of course) and realized I had no way of keeping track of my pace during the race. A little worried, I took a deep breath and decided that it did not matter; I would do my best to keep my pace above an 85% effort. Listening to my body would be my goal.

My body listened to the time, as it turns out.

Not only did I feel great during the triathlon, I managed to get a personal record in my 10 kilometer run at the end! After swimming 1600 meters in the ocean and biking 40 kilometers on the road, I ran the fastest 10k of my life (42:40). Instead of constantly glancing at my watch and feeling stressed about keeping pace, I just relaxed.

Time is funny like that, when you forget about it, it works in your favor. When you don't mind the passage of time, it seems to slow down.

On the other hand, as soon as I start to worry about time, it speeds up.

I have been back in the states for two months now, and I can't believe how the time has flown by. Each day I am busy with life here, going to one of three jobs, training for the Crossfit Games season, 2012, eating healthy, staying in touch with friends, enjoying the sun, ocean, and mountains of the central coast, spending time with Chris, trying to make time slow down.

Sometimes I worry that I will go to sleep one night, a young healthy 32 year old and wake up the next morning an older, healthy 72 year old. I worry that as the days pass by so quickly here, somehow time will sneak right away from me and I'll miss life.

Yes, time is funny like that. One minute you are sitting in a musty room in downtown Kabul, waiting for the sun to go down so you can justifiably go to sleep without feeling guilty for beating the sun to bed, the next moment you are frantically trying to complete work before the sun rises. One minute you are caged, stir crazy, going insane with so many empty days, the next minute you are glancing at a broken watch, wondering where the time went...

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Secrets of Naples

The cliff is in the foreground. It is the shorter one, but make no mistake, it was really high!
Why yes, I love to jump off of very high things!
Crowded much?

As the children chanted,"coward, coward, coward," and I watched with a disjointed glee as the last boy stood on the edge of the cliff, I floated on my back and gazed up at the sky. The boys treading in the water next to me stopped chanting and turned to give me multiple thumbs up...and then...with a, "VAFANCULO!" that echoed off of the cave wall, the final boy flew like a cursing angel through the hot Italian afternoon and, PLOP! landed right next to me in the crystal clear water. I watched his bubbles precede him as he kicked to the surface and listened to all of the other boys shouting with joy. They couldn't believe they just jumped off that cliff. I couldn't believe I just jumped off that cliff! So, together, we swam around to the other side of the rocks, climbed up the front, ran along the top of the cave and...wooosh! Plunged over the 20 meter tall cliff again!

This is one of the secrets of Naples. Cliff-jumping.

Upon entering Miseno Beach, also known as the NATO beach, a feeling of suffocation came over me. First of all, it was crowded. There were hundreds of people, umbrellas, beach loungers, ice cream and cafe stands, and pieces of trash. There was music blaring through the speakers (everywhere!); a samba line to the left, screaming parents slapping their kids to the right, an old hairy man in a thong speedo laying in front of me. It seemed as though I had entered a hell of my own making. An Italian beach.

Regardless, with my eagle eyes (okay, I am blind, but I heard the screams...), I scouted out some cliffs about 1000 meters out in the water; there were people jumping off of them! I'd have to swim to get there; everyone had paddled out there in boats. Gauging the distance, I knew I could get there pretty quickly, so I went for it. I swam straight out to sea towards the boat buoys, then I turned left towards the cliffs. As I got closer and closer, I could see that the front side of the cliff wasn't too high. A lot of teenagers were climbing up the face and jumping off the rocks, so I did the same. I didn't understand why I had heard screams all the way from the beach, because this 10 meter tall cliff was not currently producing any screams. Then, just as I thought, "okay, I have had enough," I looked up and saw that some boys were standing higher up on the rocks. Were they jumping off the back side?!

Without thinking much, I followed some speedo-clad Italian teens up the rocks. There were about 10 or 15 teenage boys standing on the edge of the cliff, peering over. I walked towards them and immediately got butterflies. There was a cave down there; it looked to be about 20-25 meters below us. All of the boys were looking over the side and muttering to each other in Italian. I looked over the side and lost my breath. I thought, "The water looks deep, so I probably won't hit the bottom if I jump." I walked away from the side of the cliff laughing nervously.

I reasoned with myself.

I couldn't jump! I just jumped off of some rocks on the Adriatic Coast a week before and hurt my ankle because the water was too shallow. Did I want to make it worse? I can't jump. Am I crazy? I don't know how deep the landing area is...I don't know how close I'll come to the rocks. I can't jump. None of the boys are jumping, they must know that it isn't deep enough down there. I could kill myself! I can't jump.

Then, the breeze blew through my hair, the sun shined down on my face, the boys stopped talking, and all I could hear was the water lapping against the cliffs.

I am free to do whatever I want; I am going to jump.

Breathing in deeply, eying the edge of the cliff, and looking towards the gap in between the boys standing in front of me, I started to sprint. As I got closer to the edge, I could see the cave below...then...air above me, water below me...I was flying! And screaming...loudly! I screamed that scream all the way out of my lungs, took another deep breath, thought about the lightness of my being at that moment and then..."crack!" I hit the water. I went deeper and deeeper, slower and slower, then the bottom greeted me; the sand was soft. I pushed off the bottom, broke the surface and screamed again. Looking skyward, I started giggling as boys were now plummeting over the cliff all at once. Boom, boom, boom!!! Three boys jumped right after me and joined me in the water.

We all looked up towards the cliff where the other boy remained. With a little coaxing, he too became an apparition, flailing through the air and eventually smacking down in the warm, wavy sea. Once all of us were in the water, we swam around, climbed the rocks, and jumped again.

After I had gotten my fill of the cliff, I swam blissfully back to the crowded beach. At that point, I didn't care about the chaos surrounding me. At that point, I was free.

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Sunday, August 07, 2011

Welcome to Naples

Sunset over Naples
Just trying to fit in!
I am sweating with anticipation.
Neghombo Beach, Ischia Italy

Startled last night by an earth-shattering boom, I woke up smiling because I knew that I was not being stirred out of slumber by a possible Taliban attack or suicide bombing. Tossing my legs over the side of my bed onto the cool, clean tile of the apartment floor, I ambled over to the window and rolled up the garage-like shutter door and glanced over the water towards Naples proper. When I opened my sleepy eyes, I saw a fireworks display more elaborate than the fourth of July in any American town; apparently this is an everyday occurrence in this part of Southern Italy. With a sigh of satisfaction, I thought, "Welcome to Naples!"

The past few days have been an exercise in extreme opposites compared to my life about two and a half weeks ago. Here, it is strange to see a women covered by more than a stringy bikini on the beach, or wedge high heels, shorts (or a mini skirt) and a tank top in the city. Topless little girls ride their bikes in the street; their curly, sun-bleached hair blowing in the breeze, screaming with glee as they remove their feet from the pedals and let gravity take them where it may.

The grown-up ladies are strong, beautiful, and loud, and nobody gives them trouble about it. American women can take a lesson from the Neapolitan women, no matter what their shape or size, the women of Naples can all be seen letting it all hang out on the beaches. My friend Jess and I agreed that there are probably very few eating disorders and body image issues in this area. Why?

Reason one: the food is too good to care!

From amazingly rich, yet light pastries, every flavor of gelato your heart may desire, to "mozerella di buffala," the pizza, OH! the pizza!, amazingly smooth olive oil, and mouth-wateringly-cooked meat of all varieties, all of it is too good to resist. Combine that with the crispy fresh produce and juicy summer fruits and you would stop restricting your diet too.

Reason two: the beaches are too good to care!

As you can see by the picture above, it is absolutely beautiful here. The water is clear and warm; the fish curious; and the beaches clean. Though beach guards (or are they beach salesmen?) attempt to charge you for everything from your chair and umbrella to the sand where you put down your towel, being on a beach in the surrounding cities and islands near Naples is a little slice of heaven. There is no time to think about your butt rolling out of that thong bikini, you just slap on some tanning lotion (or oil?) and run for the sea, pizza in hand.

That is what I will be doing!

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Thursday, July 14, 2011

Bittersweet Afghanistan







Night time has arrived and I am waiting to go home. For me, my time in Afghanistan has come to an end; after one week, I will leave this place. I will leave my chadars (head scarves) behind and slowly unfurl my American self again. Though the details of day to day life may fade, I will never forget my time here; Afghanistan, and especially my students, will always have a place in my heart.

One of the last things that I taught the students in my writing class (before their final exam last week) was the idea of oxymoron. We talked about the word "bittersweet," and I asked my students to tell me a situation in their lives which was bittersweet. This is what they said:

"I am about to be married. I am very happy that my family has found a suitable and good boy for me to marry, but I am afraid and sad to leave my own family behind when I must join his. Getting married is a happy change in a girl's life, but leaving her family is terrible. This is bittersweet."

"When I was very young my family moved to Pakistan to leave the country [Afghanistan] during the Taliban. I lived in Pakistan for 14 years. When we returned to Afghanistan, I had to leave all of my friends, my home, my city, and all of my favorite places in Pakistan behind; I had to make a new life here. I was coming back to my real home, but leaving my childhood forever. This was bittersweet."


And, unprompted, the head of the English department at my University said this at my going away party yesterday:


"Jaala Jan is leaving us. This is both a good and bad thing; it is a bittersweet moment because she will return to her home, but she will leave us. We have come to know Jaala Jan as one of us. Look, she is Afghan! She will remain in our hearts forever; we will always pray that she returns one day."


Leaving Afghanistan is bittersweet.


As I leave here, I will always remember both the good and the bad; I will always keep these memories with me:


...the call to prayer (azan)echoing in the background of life, almost always a constant reminder of the Muslim faith that guides the people and fills the air


...the clip clap of donkey and horse hooves on the streets; the bump of their carts wheeling over uneven ground, dumping potatoes and onions here and there


...helicopters interrupting class, shaking white board markers off of their trays


...Farhad Daria and Ahmad Zahir blaring on everyone's radio; playing over and over again in everyone's head


...4:45 am summer sunrises


...the smell of rotting garbage and rancid standing water lining the streets; the vision of the car wash boys dipping their towels in the sewers to give the cars a quick "bath"


...gravel in my beef


...a river choked by carelessness and trash


...the huge hearts and effervescent kindness of the people


...invitations for lunch; mantou, boolani, oshaq, kofta, kabobs, and gigantic naan


...Crossfit Camp Eggers; a little slice of America, the place where I found my heart and fell in love


...herds of goats stopping traffic


...Toyotas...everywhere


...cows getting gutted on the side of the road; a stump for a butcher's block; a strung-up sheep waiting for slaughter, staring at the severed head of another sheep lying by the gutter, blood flowing freely


...the sunset overshadowed by the brown dust of yet another wind storm


...70 Afs DVDs at Finest


...thinking every clap of thunder is a suicide bomb


...the view of T.V. hill obscured by my window; sitting in the prison of my apartment, wishing I was free


...burqas held tightly over eyes; women covered by men's insecurity

...darkly lined eyes, colorful make-up, and a stray tuft of hair peeking out from under a chadar; fabric tucked behind an ear, daring you to take a closer look

...policemen and soldiers roaming the streets; sentries without a clear purpose, weapons ready, always in danger


...mountains beyond mountains, holding secrets from decades of war that will never be revealed


...mud brick walls and houses, crumbling under the weight of corruption


...barbed wire strewn over everything; protecting nothing


...self immolation to end the suffering and imprisonment


...Rabia Balkhi's poems lamenting all women's sorrows; but dreams as well


...love stories written in secret, eyes glancing at each other from hundreds of meters away; sparks that will never start a fire, extinguished by an arrangement


...roses growing from every crack, fertilized by dust and hope


...mischievous smiles, ensuring that the future will be better than the past


And so, as the night becomes darker and I fall asleep, these are the things which will never be forgotten; this is Afghanistan to me.

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