Dec 23, 2008

and this is why we did not do christmas cards this year...

this year, the holidays have caught us WAY off guard and with a long list of presents that remain to be purchased – talk about last minute! i tried to convince my family to do a “green” christmas and give each other “handmade, re-gifted or recycled” gifts, in light of the dire economic situation that our country is experiencing, but they didn’t buy it :( even our christmas tree, which languishes in the middle of our living room without a single glittering light or multicolored globe hung on it, is a sad reminder of our neglect (i’ve managed to make some good progress on it last weekend, though).

the recipe for holiday disaster began cooking early on, more precisely, in late november, when, after three weeks of unadulterated vacation bliss, we got stranded in cambodia, unable to return to bangkok to catch our return flight to the u.s. it turns out, a group of thai protesters had picked the exact day of our departure from cambodia to occupy all of bangkok’s airports in an effort to force their prime minister out of office. this single act of defiance effectively paralyzed all air traffic in and out of the country, marooning thousands of tourists and business folk alike. tension could be cut with a butter knife at the bangkok airways counter in siem reap, cambodia, as western tourists attempted to “reason” with timid thai airline employees (in a very un-thai way, should I say) by frantically waving arms overhead and screaming expletives at the top of their lungs.

by the third day of the coup, and after several hours of overseas phone calls to continental airlines and countless more hours spent in internet cafés looking for fares online, we were able to get a regional flight out of phnom penh to hong kong, where continental had rerouted our return home – at no additional cost! i never thought i’d say this, but god bless continental airlines! and god bless my dear juan for cleverly maneuveriing through layers of bureaucracy at the local travel agency to get us back home in one piece.

on 3rd of december we landed back in houston and with our bags still packed and barely over (or not really over) the jet lag, launched right into a another crazy-busy week. it all went downhill after that. the bags never got unpacked, the christmas decorations sat idle on our living room floor for weeks, and a flurry of holiday events, a weekend away to kansas city, a visiting friend from kuwait, and some late (and very early) hours at work to make up for lost time, reduced our holiday “prep” time pretty much to nil.

thus, we find ourselves at the brink of christmas and, much to our dismay, having to send our holiday greeting "electronically". however impersonal this may seem, it does not diminish the sentiment within, as we wish happy holidays to those who are very close to our hearts despite the multiple continents and time zones between us.

in spite of the near-miss in s.e. asia and the last minute holiday rush, we really have nothing to complain about as 2008 has been good to us: we continue to be in excellent physical health, we still have a job – which, sadly, is more than can be said about thousands of our compatriots – and we continue to enjoy the love and companionship of our family and friends, the source of all our strength.

thus, it is with great joy that we bid farewell to a good year, and welcome a new one with brutal optimism. may you have a recession-proof holiday with plenty of reasons to celebrate, and may the party continue well into 2009.

Dec 20, 2008

saludo navideno

a nosotros, como todos los anios, nos cogio la epoca navidena con los calzones abajo y sin haber comprado ni un solo regalo - mucho menos con tiempo de enviar una tarjeta "de las de verdad verdad". hasta el pobre arbolito de navidad, que solito languidece en el medio de nuestra sala sin siquiera un bombillito que le alumbre ni una multicolor esfera para colgarle, se ha quejado de nuestro abandono.

mas por falta de tiempo que de ganas, este anio las navidades nos han arrollado sin misericordia, y no nos ha quedado mas remedio que recurrir a la tecnologia para enviar este saludo, que si bien no alardea de gran linaje, si viene con sinceros sentimientos para aquellos cuyos corazones han estado muy cerquita de los nuestros este anio, a pesar de la distancia. no obstante las carreras de fin de anio y del cuasi-fallido intento de salir del sudeste asiatico, a decir verdad no nos podemos quejar, pues el 2008 nos ha tratado bien: seguimos gozamos de excelente salud a dios gracias, todavia tenemos puestico – que ya de por si es gran cosa dadas las tragedias economicas de las que padece el mundo – y principalmente, continuamos recibiendo el amor de nuestras familias y amigos que son el pulso de nuestras vidas.

de antemano deseamos a todos nuestros amigos que estas fiestas ocasionen la alegria y el jolgorio necesarios y que el foforro no termine hasta bien entrado el 2009.

Oct 4, 2008

halliburton at the center of controversy - again!

why is halliburton always in the news for the wrong reasons?

a friend forwarded me this cartoon just a day after the televised debate between democratic vice-presidential candidate joe biden, and his counterpart on the republican side, sarah palin.

i couldn't help but laugh as it was hilarious how dick cheney, who is the current u.s. vice-president and former halliburton c.e.o. (in case you've been living under a rock for the last 8 years), is portrayed as a evil-looking old man and Palin as a baby-making machine, with one spawn hanging from every limb.

however, it makes me wonder if halliburton will ever get out of the dog house when news outlets keep perpetuating its largely untrue reputation as a corrupt government contractor and linking it into perpetuity to current (and hopefully not future!) republican administration(s)...

the information on this site is mine and does not necessarily represent halliburton’s position, strategy, or opinion.

Sep 5, 2008

stop the train horns in houston's district h

i live in what you would call a transitional neighborhood in in central houston's 'west end'. for many, many years, the west end has been primarily industrial, with a few working-class cottage and bungalow homes sprinkled throughout. in recent years, with higher gas prices and renewed interest in 'urban living', our little area, along several other neighborhoods along the washington / memorial park corridor (super neighborhood 22) have experienced tremendous growth, and property values have soared despite the mortgage crisis, which has lead to even more development of new homes, businesses, complexes and mid-rises.

as much as i love my neighborhood and the fact that we are located within walking/biking distance of excellent entertainment venues, restaurants, shopping and houston's largest green space, memorial park, unfortunately we have not seen our new and higher tax dollars reinvested back into the community, and we continue to experience problems that are not only aesthetic but also safety-related, such as open storm drain ditches, narrow streets and cracked pavement, no curbs, and low-hanging power/telephone lines, among others. but by far, the *biggest* nuisance is the train. we have a union-pacific railroad line that runs parallel to washington ave and the train horns are incredibly irritating, particularly when the horn blows 24/7/365 at exceedingly high decibel levels.

so rather than sitting on our butts and complaining, my neighbor louann and i have decided to do something about the issue: we have started a campaign to stop the train horns in houston's district h by urging all residents in the area to email mayor bill white at with the specific request to create a quiet zone for our area. we've already taken the first step in the campaign by mailing out a circular that we composed ourselves to all area residents. we’ve received tons of feedback from residents, some with very good suggestions and others who have started campaigns in the past and want to coordinate efforts to keep the momentum going.

we’ve also started a blog to keep everyone in the loop and post updates:

if you know anybody in 77007 or simply want to share your thoughts, please post a comment on either blog. we need all the help we can get to get this grassroots effort off the ground!

Aug 25, 2008

a tin medal for olympic advertisers

sadly, the games of the xxix olympiad, which for the last two weeks had become my fascination - and excuse for doing absolutely nothing on the weekends but watch tv - have come to an end. although i will miss the nightly excitement of coming home to hours of uninterrupted sports coverage, two things that i will definitely not miss are the superfluous commentary and selective coverage of the "nbc family of networks", and the commercials.

one particularly lousy series of adverts, by exxon-mobil, in which highly coiffed executives (or actors?) claim to be helping to fight malaria by donating bed nets (really!!) will go down in the history of high-dollar advertising as the sorriest excuse for tooting your own horn by an already unpopular corporation.

what bothers me most is the cheekiness of this company, whose quarterly profits greatly exceed the annual gross domestic product of the developing nations they claim to be helping, to spend what must be chump change for them on this publicity campaign to pitch their so-called human capital initiatives, rather than donating said sums to humanitarian and environmental causes in the countries in which they operate.

word of advice for exxon-mobil leadership: i think you need a new marketing strategy; we’re not buying this gigantic crock of bs.

Jul 29, 2008

the most amazing lip gloss ever!!

i just found the most amazing lip gloss ever: o-gloss intuitive lip gloss by smashbox (and no, i'm not being compensated by smashbox for my "expert" opinion...although maybe i should). the reason why o-gloss is so infinitely cool is because the silky clear gloss that comes out of the tube when you squeeze it reacts with your skin's chemistry to turn your pout to that oh-so-delicate shade of pink that you get when you are naturally flushed. think post workout or post...well, you know ;)

smashbox also makes a matching blush called o-gloss intuitive cheek color, which does the same thing for your cheeks. these glosses are particularly fabulous for summer when you want to avoid looking cake-y and overly made up. aside from infusing your looks with the freshness of a dewy-skin siren, these products are also chock-full of antioxidants and nutrients, like goji berry and pomegranate extract - and the best part: smashbox cosmetics are not tested on animals. thumbs way up from me...and from the bunnies!

Jul 16, 2008

paper or plastic?

i recently read an article in my company’s daily newsletter about the eternal dilemma at the grocery store: “paper or plastic”. the answer that the article provided seemed less intuitive than public knowledge would suggest, so i decided to do some googling to find out what other “experts” out there were saying.

so what is the right answer? in the opinion of most experts, including the environmental protection agency (epa), the natural resources defense council, and the environmental literacy council, the best answer is “neither – i brought my own.”

i started using reusable cloth shopping bags about a year ago and always keep a few in the trunk of my car, as well as my husband's. i make a concerted effort to bring them down with me every time i go shopping, but sometimes i forget. however, instead of taking the easy out and ask for "paper or plastic", i ask the cashier to watch my purchases for a few seconds while i get my reusable bags from the car, or if i am shopping with my hubby, i ask him to take care of running the groceries through while i run to the car to get the bags.

when the items being purchased are small enough to hand carry, i do so, and i also refuse the bag when purchasing large or oddly shaped items like pillows, shelving units or tools - those don't need to be bagged! i’ve got a few inquisitive looks from cashiers, but it’s nothing that can’t be dealt with by saying “it’s for the good of the planet”.

using reusable bags takes only a minimum amount of effort and discipline, but it makes a huge difference on the environment. so next time you go to the store, remember to bring your own bags and you will feel great with yourself afterwards – a definite win-win situation.

Jul 9, 2008

information overload

did you know that the modern human being has more information available in one single edition of the new york times than a human in the middle ages had available in her entire lifetime? no wonder we are suffering from information overload, which has lead to a detrimental effect on our ability to focus, think and reflect.

so take a few minutes today and and "unload" by limiting the interruptions caused by multiple flows of information: turn off the envelope icon on your outlook taskbar so you are not tempted to check every email as it arrives, check your blackberry at the door before entering a meeting, limit your mobile facebook/myspace/hi5 monitoring to a couple of times a day only, etc. your brain will thank you, and your boss will love the boost in efficiency and renewed attention span that you will achieve...double bonus!

Jul 8, 2008

hold the intolerance, please

it’s only been two weeks, but spain’s crowning as european football champions has been nearly forgotten amidst news of the rescue of the 15 hostages held by farc terrorists in the jungles of colombia (new post in the works), the ongoing controversy over the beijing olympics, and rafael nadal’s astonishing wimbledon victory—another spaniard, coincidentally. even though it is “old news”, i still feel the need to blog about it, primarily because of an incident that happened the day of the final that put a minor damper in the celebrations.

my husband and i got a group of friends together to watch the euro cup final at a bar. this game was so important that we wanted to ensure that the game would be shown wherever we decided to watch it, so we called a couple of places ahead of time, and settled on this one bar located in midtown houston, where we'd watched important soccer matches before, such as the 2006 fifa world cup final and others. we could not have expected what would happen next. juan and i arrived first to save a large table for our 10 or so friends. we ordered food and drinks and settled comfortably into our seats. we noted that most tv’s were set to either baseball or random programming, and only one flat screen was on the channel that was to show the euro final. we asked our waitress, who was very friendly, and she said that they would tune into the euro final about 30 min before kick off. we waited a while longer, but 30 min before kick off still only one tv was showing the euro pre-game and the speakers were tuned to the houston astros baseball game. at this point, we became a bit concerned and approached the bartender, who appeared to be the person in charge, to ask him if he was planning on swiching some of the tv's to the soccer game and put on the volume, as had previously been confirmed, to which he replied “this is america; we watch baseball here” and then walked off. i waited for the punchline, which never came, and a few seconds later, the magnitude of the comment sank in. did he really say what i think he said, i asked juan?!?! what does he mean by “we watch baseball here”?!? what does that say about the millions of tennis, american football, basketball, hockey, racing, and of course soccer, fans in america?? do they not count?? and why does he think he has the right to speak for a whole nation??

we were so taken aback that the only option we saw feasible at that moment was to close our tab and leave stat. we scrambled to look for another place to watch the match while trying to get in touch with our friends, who were already on their way. fortunately, and thanks in part to juan’s skillful maneuvering, we were able to find another bar and most of our friends made it there—except the two that did not have mobile phones :( we ended up having a great time at this other place, and were delighted when spain’s single goal, orchestrated by fernando “el niño” torres, gave spain the victory over germany. later we found out through our two friends that the other bar eventually showed the game, as a rowdy pack of about 30 spanish fans showed up and insisted the game be put on.

in hindsight, i guess we could’ve stayed and waited for our friends to show up and then, using the strength in our numbers, we could’ve demanded that the tv’s be switched to the match, but why fight ignorance with brute force? we were so irritated that the mere act of thinking about patronizing this establishment made our skin crawl.

the next day, while all over the world jubilant throngs of spaniards and sympathizers celebrated the victory of their national team, juan was emailing the owner of the bar to tell him our story. in all fairness, we should mention that we did receive a prompt reply from the bar owner, and he followed up with a phone call, where he was extremely apologetic about the incident and even offered to give us some “freebies”. at the end of his conversation with juan, he stated that the bartender who’d made the comment would no longer be employed by his bar. we weren’t necessarily happy to hear about this, but were relieved that he cared to listen to our story and showed concern for the reputation of his business.

ironically, the motto of this euro cup was "respect", referring to the fifa-wide campaign against racism and intolerance in sports, which has been at the center of fifa’s philosophy for the last few years. obviously the sport highest authority’s message was lost somewhere in this man who chose to speak for a nation while the only voice that was heard was that of his own narrow-mindedness.

(photo caption: spain’s national team holding the henri delaunay trophy. fernando “the kid” torres, front and center, was the author of the single goal that gave spain the victory of the xii european football cup on 29th june, 2008. courtesy of getty images)

Jun 24, 2008

what is wrong with america's health care system?

ok, i am officially p*ssed off at the american health care system, and here's why: you get penalized for being proactive. let's face it: in america, you have to literally be *dying* for certain kinds of tests or screening to be authorized and paid for by the insurance companies. you can't just waltz into the doctor's office and say that you want a blood test or an mri just to make sure everything is ok with you. you have to have a "medical" reason for it, otherwise, you have to pay out of pocket for the tests.

the u.s. is one of (if not the) only industrialized nation that does not provide universal health care to its citizens. i mean, even cuba, which is neither industrialized nor even democratic, provides subsidized universal health care to its citizens. why we in america can't have the same benefits afforded to our citizens beats me. even if you are one of the lucky few to be privately insured, there is no guarantee that the insurance companies will pay for your medical expenses, it all depends on how the medical provider "codes" your visit.

an example: my friend pili felt ill on christmas eve last year, so she went to the emergency room. after an examination, the emergency room doctors determined that she'd just had what they deemed a "mild" heart attack (gasp!). it turns out pili had coronary artery disease, with three arteries blocked at 99%, 95% and 85% respectively, and another blocked at 40%. she was scheduled for surgery to place heart stints in her three most clogged arteries, and when she inquired about the fourth, she was told that it was not sufficiently blocked and that she had to wait until it was blocked at least 80% so that they could operate on her. when she pressed on for further information, asking what would happen if she wanted all four of them to be stinted so she didn't have to go through surgery again in the future, they said that it would not be covered by insurance if it was not medically necessary..."not medically necessary"?!?! pili had just had a heart attack for pete's sake!! so now, not only is she worried sick that her artery may get worse, but is now under heavy medication precisely to prevent that, which keeps engrossing the arcs of big pharmaceuticals and the insurance companies, while diminishing her quality of life.

another beauty: i called my insurance company a few days ago to ask about my annual well woman visit as my doctor had advised that, in their experience, only one visit was allowed every 365 calendar days. i was put on hold for what seemed like hours and when the customer service rep finally got back on she said that it was ok to go sooner than 365 days as my insurance company would pay for two "routine" visits per calendar year...screeeech...two routine visits? i asked. what do you mean by "routine" visits? she said that routine visits were basically "preventive" care visits that you make to a general practitioner or family doctor when you do not have a "medical reason" for going (translation: when nothing's hurting).

obviously this explanation didn't sit very well with me and, as a good auditor, i continued to inquire:

me: what happens if you want to have a third "routine" visit?
insurance rep: you have to pay out of pocket for it.
me: so you are telling me that i am penalized for being proactive and wanting to get a checkup even if nothing is essentially wrong with me?
rep: yes, basically.
me: what happens if there is, say, family history of cancer or other hereditary diseases and i want to get tests performed more often or at an earlier age than the "medically recommended" age?
rep: unless you can prove that you have a first degree relative that had the disease, it will not be covered by insurance .
me: what happens if i go to the doctor and say that something is hurting just to get a particular kind of test, will insurance cover that?
rep: well, depends on how the doctor codes your visit, if they code it as a medical reason, then yes, it will be covered.

i later googled "medical billing codes" and found out that these codes are what insurance companies use to determine whether they will cover whatever procedure you are having done. obviously "being proactive" is not one of the codes that is covered...

Jun 20, 2008

good bye croatia, hello turkey!

my heart is about to pop out of my chest! i am typing this just as i watch turkey’s dramatic victory over croatia via penalty kicks, which has earned this incredibly resilient team a well-deserved spot in the semi-final of the euro 2008 football cup.

turkey has managed to pull what no other team has done in the history of the tourney: not just one, but three “come from behind”, back to back wins – and not just any wins, turkey’s victories against switzerland, czech republic and now croatia have been some of the most dramatic, astonishing, edge-of-your-seat triumphs i have seen in international competition in recent decades. with their performance in this cup, turkey has become the underdog that everyone wants to root for.

on the flip side, what a heart-breaker for croatia to have allowed turkey to equalize on the 120th minute of second overtime play and then move on to miss three penalty kicks – including a spectacular save by turkey’s redeemer, goalkeeper rustu.

another one of my favorite teams of this cup, portugal, was likewise eliminated by a very effective germany, despite some minor controversy.

croatia and portugal’s elimination prove once again that in soccer, there are no “almosts”.

Jun 10, 2008

my "extreme" love of football

joy, oh joy!! football season is upon us. and i don’t mean american football…what i—and the rest of the world outside of the usa—refer to as (the real) football is known within the borders of america as “soccer”. but i digress. football season is upon us and i can’t hardly contain my excitement at the thought of watching two—and sometimes up to four—games a day. between world cup qualifiers, euro cup matches, the marseille fifa beach soccer world cup, local major league soccer (mls) games, and an assortment of friendlies and non-competition matches, not to mention the upcoming beijing 2008 olympics, i have the next couple of months mapped out in football matches.

with international superstars like ronaldinho and messi in the lineup, as well as newcomers like pepe (or pretty much any of the poland national team players) that hope to make it big after their first international appearance, the summer promises to be one of non-stop excitement.

well, as with everything, there is a perfectly good explanation for what has recently been dubbed by a friend of mine as my “extreme” interest in football (at least for a girl). in the year of our lord, nineteen hundred and ninety (1990), the italy fifa world cup changed my life. it was the first time in many decades that my home country of colombia had qualified for a world cup and football fever was in the air. i was all of 12 years old and had never really paid any attention to football, despite the fact that i had been born and raised in a football-loving nation. no one else in my household liked football, not even my father who was from spain—and like most spaniards and europeans (and most men for that matter!), should have been in absolute l.o.v.e and awe of the sport, therefore i was left to watch most matches by myself, which allowed me to have a pure and unadulterated experience of man (or girl) vs. television. i was by myself when i heard on the radio the goal scored by colombia's forward freddy rincon in between the legs of germany goalkeeper khan, which allowed my team to tie the undefeated (and later champion of the world) germany and thus advance to second round, and i was also by myself when, in a turn of fate, colombia was eliminated from the competition on the second round at the hands of 42 year old cameroon forward roger milla, aided by a huge mistake from colombia’s colorful goalie, rené “el loco” higuita who came out of the area to kick the ball and was dispossessed by milla, who then scored.

after that, i watched faithfully the remainder of the cup, as germany was crowned new champion of the world, and all international competitions that i could get my hands (or eyes) on after that: copa libertadores, copa america, confederations cup, euro cup, etc. when the next world cup rolled around in usa 1994, my heart was broken by colombia’s defeat in the first round at the hands of the host team itself, due in part to an even bigger mistake than that from 1990: colombia’s defense andres escobar scored an own-goal. escobar was later shot to death outside a nightclub in medellin, colombia, in an incident that some still claim was not related to the football match, but which will forever remain etched in the minds of football fans all around the world. in 1995, i relocated to the usa.

in america, football is not as wildly popular as it is in the rest of the world, and it was even less popular when i first arrived in the country. there was no national league to speak of, and activity was reduced to local amateur and varsity leagues (high school/university). i did not like any of the sports that were—and still are—popular in america: baseball, american football (oh god!), basketball (which i can tolerate to a certain extent), hockey, golf, racing, etc. so i fell back on football. i tried to catch whatever match of competition i could on t.v., but there weren’t very many channels that would show international games, and most of them were “pay-per-view” so whenever there was an important match or tourney, i would watch the game at bars with friends, or someone would purchase the pay per view event at their home and we would all pitch in to cover the cost. great times.

in 1996, major league soccer (mls), the national usa football league, made its debut with all necessary pomp and circumstance. however, as much as mls has made great strides in trying to appeal to an ever growing number of fans (many of whom are of foreign descent), it still does not measure up (at least, in my humble opinion) to clubs of international stature, but it is, alas, the closest that we are at the moment to football, and bargain-basement entertainment for approx. usd $15 a match—especially considering that (american) national football league (nfl) games go for upwards of usd $80 per regular season game!

we “real” football fans can find solace in the fact that we can watch former international stars like david beckham and cuauhtémoc blanco battle it out in a mere few yards from our seats. as i type this, i have just watched my new home team, the two time back-to-back mls champion houston dynamo, beat toronto fc 3-1 in a home game. go dynamo!

so my “extreme” love of football, as my friend recently put it, is rooted in tradition, but mainly in a lack of any other sports that have appealed to me during the majority of my adult life. i just hope that i can continue to entertain my fancy for many years to come, and that my dream of making it to a world cup comes to life in the (very near) future. south africa 2010, here i come!!

(photo caption: celebrating argentina's victory over mexico in the 2006 fifa world cup at buenos aires' "obelisco")

where is the hot water?!?!

i recently came back from a business trip to russia. one word: w.o.w.

lovely country, amazing history, fun people, superb vodka. i was incredibly lucky to witness while in moscow the celebration of the 63rd anniversary of the defeat of nazi germany, celebrated as "victory day" with an impressive military parade and air show to rival those seen in soviet times.

moscow is an impressive city, full of history and contrasts, where you can see couples on their wedding day parading around the city centre, alongside skateboarders, military personnel and the ubiquitous hordes of gorgeous women in impossibly high heels. with an economy growing at the speed of bullet trains, and an increasingly upwardly mobile and educated population, moscow is also the most expensive city in the world.

when we left moscow for siberia, however, things reverted to another era. tyumen was not as cold as i expected it to be and, alas, i was ill-prepared for facing the constraints encountered, as our accommodations fell short of my expectations for a business hotel. for starters, for an eight storey hotel, the lift (elevator) started on the third floor…not sure why, i am convinced that it was a makeshift lift fashioned out of a broom closet with little elves tugging on the pulleys, which would collapse any minute. so we were forced to lug our suitcases and very heavy computer bags up three flights of stairs before we could get to the lift. lesson learned: pack light, like our russian friends, who brought small duffle bags and slim computer cases, and one of them, amusingly, only brought whatever could fit in a medium sized plastic bag! my hero!

next, with a temperature of 20°c+ there was no air conditioning in our rooms. this may not seem like a big deal to some, but if you have lived in the usa for the last 13 years of your life—particularly in texas—you get used to having a/c at all times of the day and night, all year round (yes, even in winter!). then, there was no hot water in the shower. again, this may seem to some like a contradiction, seeing as being hot would perhaps be alleviated by a cold shower, but try showering with cold water first thing in the morning. apparently, in every city in the russian federation, the government provides the hot water to city residents, but every year in the late spring or early summer for about 20 days, they cut off the hot water so that the pipes can be maintained. lovely system, except the cut-off happened while we were there...oh joy. i had to exercise my creative side by using a tea kettle that i managed to obtain from the only english-speaking front desk clerk in the entire place, with which i boiled some water and made a bath in the sink, resulting in water being splashed all over the bathroom (see prior post).

by far the most peculiar anecdote was the laundry. we were told by our russian students that, to get our clothes washed, all we had to do was put them in a plastic bag (which we were expected to provide) and hand them to the floor housekeeper. we found bags and put our clothes in, but we could never find the floor housekeeper, so we took the clothes to the front desk and told the clerk via hand signals (the english-speaking clerk was not working that day) that we needed our clothes washed. she nodded and smiled (a rarity) which we assumed meant she understood us. when we arrived back at the hotel that evening, my bag of clothes was sitting in the exact same spot where the lady in the morning had put it, with a note on it stating (in russian) my name and room number. i was extremely aggravated initially, as i had no clean clothes left whatsoever, until i remembered that i was lucky to have even found my clothes, as they could’ve very well ended up enlarging the inventory of a street vendor at the local flea market. eventually we figured out where the floor housekeeper resided and took the clothes to her, and got them back the next day in perfectly good order, but the entire experience was, as much of the rest of the trip, very unusual.

but despite all of the “character building” experiences, and the harassment of a local drunken woman who kept trying to kick us (mostly me, really) out of the local square for being a (loud) english-speaking foreigner, the best of times were spend hanging out with our russian friends, with a beer in hand and just talking, telling silly jokes and stories, and at times even singing. these were some of the best times we had and i can’t wait to go back to repeat them :)

(photo caption: st. basil's cathedral in red square, moscow, russia)


ok, so i have been absent for a while...i know. there's been loads of things going on, trips, work stuff, etc. but i'm back and have a few articles in the pipeline, so i will attempt to publish them in the next few days. here are the first few :)

thank goodness for "western" toilets

i have always considered myself to be fairly conscious of my surroundings and, not having grown up in the usa, i've always been grateful for the comforts of living in an modern and highly industrialized nation – after all, as eloquently put by my spanish uncle, where else in the world can you do your banking, get your food, and even get married, without having to get out your car? however, nothing could’ve prepared me for what i will call the “toilet situation” in a recent trip to southeast asia.

first, as i very quickly discovered, toilet paper is a luxury. predominantly muslim cultures do not use toilet paper…personal cleansing. they use a water hose conveniently affixed to the toilet cubicle wall instead. in rural areas, a bucket of water and scoop is provided. so i quickly learned to bring my own t.p. on all trips to the toilet, lest i be forced to use the hose!

second, you're lucky if you find a western-style "sitting" toilet ; more often than not, you will find a "squat toilet" (basically, a hole in the ground), which turns the simple act of using the toilet into an excercise of your lower half--maybe that's explains why the "pear" body shape does not occur as often in eastern countries...but i digress.

third, there is water e.v.e.r.y.w.h.e.r.e.! due to hose usage, water gets splashed on every possible surface in the toilet cubicle: walls, floor, toilet seat, tank (if there is a sitting toilet), i even went into a stall that had water splashed on the ceiling (don’t ask me how that happened…). as water ponds on the floor, it is necessary to roll up one’s pant legs before entering the restroom, and if wearing flip-flops or sandals, well, it may be best to just hold it. as a direct result, the toilet seat (again, only if there is a sitting toilet) is often entirely covered in water and as there is no toilet paper with which to wipe it or line it, one is highly advised not to sit.

finally, if you’ve managed to survive the above, most restrooms have water to rinse your hands but few have soap and even fewer have paper towels or a hand dryer. so after having touched all those wet surfaces and knowing how they got wet, hand sanitizing gel is highly advisable. needless to say, every trip to the restroom was an adventure, and by the end of 3 + weeks i was ready for a regular toilet experience.

i didn’t realize how much of an impact this whole situation had made on me until i came back home and the first day back in office, i went to the ladies room to find a full roll of toilet paper and a dispenser of toilet seat liners, so common in american ladies’ rooms. i couldn’t help but smile and reflect back upon the most basic commodities that we so often take for granted but that elsewhere in the world are considered luxuries, and felt instantly enlightened :)

(photo caption: looking up at the petronas towers, kuala lumpur, malaysia)