Ever Since I Left The City, You

If you have ever been my roommate in hotel, dorm or apartment since 2015, you will already know this: my morning alarm is “Hotline Bling” by Drake. At first, the song choice used to be an inside joke with myself. I selected the song with a wink, or so I thought. Throughout the years, however, “Hotline Bling” has turned into something more like an anthem and less like a jingle. It is constant, always there, always loud enough to wake me from slumber.

A few days ago, I cleaned and listened to one of my favorite new podcasts, “A Piece of Work.” It is genius and brief. There are ten twenty-minute episodes in which Broad City co-star Abbi Jacobson goes to MoMA and explains the art to her friends. The most recent episode I listened to was one about an artist named James Turell who creates these rooms full of shifting light.

Right in the middle of that podcast, just as I was sweeping the last bits of dust off my floor, I thought my phone was malfunctioning. “Hotline Bling” started playing. I didn’t remember setting an alarm. Then, Abbi’s narration resumed. “Hotline Bling” was a part of the episode, not a random reminder on my phone to wake up.

James Turrell, Wedgework VI, 2016 | LED, fluorescent light | dimensions, Hausler Contemporary Museum

Apparently, the backgrounds in the music video for “Hotline Bling” are all Turell-scapes, illuminating Drake’s cheesy dad dancing.

I got hooked on “A Piece of Work” again because my old roommate Lola and I went to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on a lazy long weekend afternoon. The time that I have left in Boston is the most finite it has ever been. I try to fill a bucket with the weight of things I have left to do.

I want to go swimming, to see the giant globe at the Mapparium, to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and to ride the blue line to the Wonderland stop just because of the name. I want to perform a poem at an open mic night, to fail in front of strangers.

Lola and I were stunned by the centerpiece of the museum, a palatial garden courtyard, outlined by large symmetrical windows. One of the most peaceful, mesmerizing things we could do was stare at the middle. Somehow, the designers of the building got the light of the courtyard just right. Although it was the middle of February, we were surrounded by sun. We were like mosquitos hovering around a lightbulb. The center was magnetic.

The courtyard.

One of my friends from the Arava Institute, swung by Boston for a few days to visit his sister before returning to Israel. Jake is originally from Dallas. I’ve always felt a warm weather, non-East Coast hometown camaraderie with him, even though Tucson isn’t that close to Eastern Texas. Jake asked me, “Did you ever notice how the light in Boston is different? How the sun here lays lower in the sky than it does in other places?”

I did not get it. Not at first. But when I walked outside the next day and looked up, I realized he was right.

I went to Shabbat dinner at Northeastern’s new rabbi’s house. I want so much out of my spirituality that sometimes it feels like I’m squeezing a rock while pretending it’s a lemon. However, the dinner at Rabbi Becky’s apartment was gratifying.

For the week’s Torah, Rabbi Becky shared a midrash on the Jews at Temple Sinai. He described how the ancient Israelites prepared themselves a glorious feast to pray to G-d, but realized all they needed was prayer and light to sustain them. The food became irrelevant. This story, at first listen, could have seemed overly acetic but I liked the message. The light can fill us up. (Maybe the moral of all of this, in actuality, is that I should have bought a seasonal affective disorder lamp four years ago.)

Arava + Boston = Saturday night vegan at Clover Food Lab.

At the end of the meal, Rabbi Becky doled cards with different words on it, asking the Shabbat dinner guests to pick three randomly and talk about their significance. My cards were hope, serenity and bliss. I could not help but think about the way Jake talked about the low sun in Boston, how I found the peace in staring at the sky and noticing that Boston is different, Boston is soft, Boston is pastel.

What does home mean? Home is longing. Home is a place with sunsets I miss. In most of the past few years, I stood stonily next to friends snapping iPhone photos of a sunset. “Not an Arizona sunset,” I would huff. I miss the distant skies so physically, so loyally, that sometimes I forget to look up and notice the air above me that implies one day, I will ache for Boston too.

Boston sunsets outside International Village: good enough.

Posted in 2018 | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Three Sips and You’re Welcome


Sunrise through Salaman’s tent


On many moments of the Negev trip, we found ourselves in the same set-up. The nearly fifty of us would sit on floor pillows, elbow-to-elbow, knee-to-knee and accept extra sugary black tea and bitter Bedouin coffee. We made the shape of a long rectangle with the points of our bodies and listened to different narratives about the Bedouin way of life.

When I found myself moving from the rocky terrain overlooking the recognized Bedouin village of Qasr al-Sir into another space with more tea and coffee, I felt comfortable, like the tea break was what I supposed to be doing. I asked Anwar, our guide in Qasr al-Sir, what he meant when he said earlier that being a Bedouin was a way of life, rather than a religion or nationality. Eagerly, I waited for an answer that would somehow address all of my nebulous questions. Are Bedouins Israeli, Palestinian or neither? Instead, he picked up the tiny white coffee cup and held it in the air.

“When a guest comes in, we fill their cup of coffee only a third of the way through. This is a Bedouin coffee cup. You will find ones that look like it in every village. If we filled the cup up all the way, it would be extremely rude because it would imply that we want them to finish the cup and then leave immediately. So, we serve three cups, which all have different meanings. The first cup of coffee is for the guest. It represents hospitality. The second cup is for fun, for laughter and enjoyment. The third cup is for protection, for now and in the future.”

This is how Anwar answered my question about the meaning of the Bedouin way of life. I was his guest, drinking coffee in dramatically smaller doses than I’m used to in America. Anwar relayed many concepts during his talk. He spoke about how the Bedouins have their own justice system, separate from the Israeli police and at some point, may be wiling to use the death penalty. He answered questions about paying taxes. He told us how a few weeks ago in Qasr al-Sir, 75 Israeli policeman came to remove take out three illegal date trees.


Sunrise over Rodney’s solitary farm in the Negev


Anwar’s division of three meanings – guest, fun and protection – represent many of the moments we shared on our trip. It is impossible to capture everything, but by splitting the trip into three sips, it is possible to gain some semblance of clarity.


At a house in the development town of Mitzpei Ramon, I ate authentic Indian food on tin metal plates. I was served by Rosie, an Orthodox Jewish woman who grew up in Mumbai. Her walls were adorned with wedding photos and paintings of rabbis. She has seven grandchildren. I wondered what Shabbat would be like in her home.


My supervisor, Tareq at the Avada site

On the first night, we sat in Salaman Al Azazme’s tent. Salaman lives in the unrecognized village of Wadi Ariqa. As he spoke, Salaman kneaded a pile of dough and told us that a life in the desert makes one’s spirit light. He threw the dough into a bed of hot coals, turning it over. As the bread cooked, it glittered in red and black. I had never seen a more beautiful way to break bread. When he lifted the charred bread from the coals, my fingers were singed. It didn’t matter.


Dr. Yaron Finzi, a geophysicist, led us through a hike of the Maktesh Ramon crater. We exercised our lungs on the climb and brains on the peak. Yaron gave us a science lesson and simulated the process of erosion by destroying a piece of bread. He stuck a carrot underneath it and pretended it was lava and poured water on the top to show that water erosion makes both rocks and sourdough soft.


Rei, Ofer and David, jamming

Maryam Abu-Rakayek, a female businesswoman, inspired us with her story of being the first Bedouin woman to go to university abroad. She took her grandmother’s wisdom of plants and herbs in the area and became the owner of the cosmetics company, Desert Daughter. In a workshop she led, we crushed rosemary leaves with a mortar and pestle and strained them into cream. We walked around her store and smelled soap made from camel’s milk.



Hala and Randa after the hike — two of the most beautiful people I know

At Midreshet Sde Boker, a nature reserve and the resting place of David Ben Gurion and his wife, we heard from Assaf, the park ranger. Assaf spoke about the necessity of environmental protection in the Negev. Ibex grazed behind us as we spoke together. Assaf gave us the perspective of the Israeli government. He urged Bedouins to stay in one village rather than live as nomads. He discussed how the government is offering Bedouins money to move to the North. The message was: graze somewhere else or stay in one place. The preservation of nature is paramount.

The wind whipped our faces and hair on the last afternoon, surprisingly chilly. We huddled together and listened to one last complicated story, staring at the rubble of the demolished Bedouin Umm al-Hiran and looking at the new infrastructure for the Jewish town of Hiran.

Before the trip, we were reminded constantly to pack warm clothing for sleeping outside in tents. The desert, in its way, gets cold too.


In Mitzpei Ramon


Like a good afternoon cup of coffee, you drink and you feel refreshed but you are not satisfied. Your mind is awake but your belly is not full.

In those three meaningful, sandy days of the Negev trip, we heard so many different perspectives we could not simply wipe the dust away and see a clear truth lying underneath. Although we all at the Arava Institute sat together and slept under the same tent together, and blew on our cups until the steam finally evaporated, together, we did not think together.

I found Anwar’s talk and other moments of the trip difficult to distill. I was learning more about the problems, conflicts and big questions surrounding Bedouin society but nevertheless felt the weight of not knowing enough. However, I settled on the importance and truth of being a guest in the complicated, barren, endlessly interesting Negev, staying for just a bit longer than the time it takes to drink one cup of coffee.


After the trip, tea: I came down with a nasty cold so Hillary added lemongrass from the kibbutz and honey from the West Bank

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The Center, The Center, The Center

Mercaz means center, in both Hebrew and Arabic. Four years or an eternity ago, I delighted in my one college semester of Arabic granting me access to a third alphabet while on Birthright. My fellow Arabic-taking-friend Alyssa and I pronounced the words that appeared on signs phonetically, slowly: mmmmerrr-caaaaz. Fifteen weeks of vocabulary was more than nothing. Medd-eeee-na. (City.)

At Kibbutz Ketura, our Mercaz is a building, located in between the basketball court and the dining hall. It holds two small rooms, a larger main room and an ark containing the scrolls of the Torah. Depending on what holiday it is, how much sunlight is in the sky and which people fill its space, the Mercaz reinvents itself to fit a designated meaning.


Laundry for the whole kibbutz happens here.

Every time I step through the doors of the Mercaz, I walk into something new. Wednesdays are the days I TA for the Climate Change class, assessing the composition of gases in the atmosphere. During those mornings, we arrange the black chairs horizontally behind tables to mimic a classroom. On Tuesday afternoons, twisted, difficult questions about the Conflict float in my chest: it is our Peace Building and Leadership Seminar. Is Judaism dying in the world or in Israel? Who has the right to be more angry or afraid or nationalistic? What does Zionism mean to me now? The fifty of us at the Arava Institute create a circle with our bodies, the desks pushed against the wall to make room for all those chairs, and we face each other.

A gaggle of high schoolers in music camp came to Ketura for two weeks. They practiced just beyond the paper-thin walls of my office, interspersing my hours of journal articles with twenty-minute interruptions of orchestral noise. All that sound culminated into a concert in the Mercaz when the camp was done, the noise transforming into something pure. I watched a 16-year-old boy hold a saxophone like it was the answer to some of the questions I was holding. Then, I left the room and forgot my dizzy feeling, the saxophonist’s face or any of the solutions inside of his jazz.

At its core, this way of small living rests on the need to retrace steps. To return again and again to the very same spot and experience it anew. There is only so much space here. Only so many ways for people to interact with one another.

Ofer, my friend fluent in Hebrew, gifted me with more interpretations. He described his years in an urban kibbutz, a kibbutz ironi. Small groups of people live together in an apartment and share resources collectively, modeling the initial idea of the kibbutz without the rural component. When I asked who ultimately makes the decisions about finances and the direction of the group, he brought up the word mercaz again.

“A person becomes a center, a core. Whoever is most interested in leading things or is the most charismatic is the mercaz. This is beautiful because it is equal. You do not have to be the wealthiest or the best looking or the smartest. You just have to care the most. People will follow. You will become, in time, the eye of the storm.”

Learning about the urban kibbutz lifestyle was admittedly difficult for me. I could not understand how a life centered around a small community could provide a person with enough joy or enough fulfillment. Sometimes, living on Kibbutz Ketura, I struggle with the concept as it relates to my daily life. So, Ofer handed me another definition, another expanded meaning. The Hebrew word meushar is a synonym for happy. On his kibbutz ironi there was not just a sense of happiness in a basic sense, but also a deeper way of living that conveyed justice and peace. Meushar.

In truth, I always thought the definition of joy and fulfillment could not possibly converge. There are the times in my life when I feel the most relaxed and the most conventionally happy. They usually exist in the summer, during the long lazy days filledblog4with pages of fiction and circling conversations. The feeling of idleness is pleasant but not always satisfying. On the other hand, I draw out sources of significance from my professional life, my extracurriculars and my academics. I see my personal pursuit of happiness not as meushar, that elusive mix of joy and fulfillment, but a delicate balancing act between opposites, like summer and winter, peanut butter and jelly, day and night,.

These last few weeks, I kept searching for new dictionary entries to the same words because I believe that they will lead me to something. The other weekend, I visited Jerusalem for the third time. Jerusalem was, is and will be a Mercaz in innumerable ways. While there, I stayed with the brilliant people in the Achvat Amim program.

In Jerusalem, I saw three stages of my life: visiting the city at the end of my time in Jewish Day School, the beginning of college and this. Here. I slept outside to commemorate Sukkot but could not bring myself to go up to the Western Wall again, so I stared at it and a corner of the golden dome through iron grates, from a safe spiritual distance.

Multiple meanings could mean that paragraphs and places and journeys get lost in translation. Yet I like to think that these constant elements of my life, as they enunciate a third, fourth and fifth definition are merely gaining broader shape, encompassing more clarity instead of confusion.

Posted in 2017 | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

In the Wilderness, My Arabic is Weak

Here’s a question for you. “How can you tell what the best compromise is? The answer: when no one is happy.”


Picture this: it is the Friday morning before my First Shabbat in Israel For The Right Reasons. I’m sitting in a lecture about the meaning of the Jewish Sabbath and pluralism on Kibbutz Ketura. A kibbutznik, David, is doing the talking, which is really more like shouting.

“Today I will tell you about the Sabbath! You must keep and remember it – this is a commandment that comes from God! By the way, I am an atheist.”

Those of us who felt any semblance of sleepiness walking into the room became jolted into attention. David has a hybrid Brooklyn-Israeli accent, gangly limbs and a white beard. It takes the others and me in the room a minute to realize that what he is saying is not screaming at all but actually poetry.

My associations with Judaism range from shame to sweetness. David describes the object of my murky emotions with such exquisite language I cannot help but hold my breath.

“Napoleon said, ‘Bring the Jews outside the ghettos!’ So they did and they split into three camps. The Orthodox eschewed modern life. ‘No, no, no the light blinds us,’ they cried, dressing in the clothes of the Polish Jews in the 1700s. The Reform Jews built synagogues that looked like cathedrals. ‘It is so important for everyone else to understand who we are,’ they pleaded. Everything that was mystical was gone and they tore pages out of prayerbooks. The Conservative Jews fell somewhere in between.”

Kibbutz Ketura is a pluralistic kibbutz, which means that the whole range of Jewish practice is embraced, a compromise that makes no one happy. I have decided to live, work and explore at the Arava Institute, which is located on Ketura about 30 minutes north of Eilat, Israel’s southernmost city.

The Arava Institute itself is even more diverse than Jewish pluralism because it is multifaith and multinational. The students here come from the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Jordan and Israel, Germany and France, Rwanda and the US. The Institute is based on the theory of change that:

  • The environment cannot wait for politicians.
  • We do not want environmental concerns to prevent the possibility of peace.
  • If more environmental compromises in this region can be achieved, Arava could be a model for peacebuilding everywhere.

Every semester, students and interns come to study the environment or do research projects.

If it is right to measure a compromise’s effectiveness by unhappiness, the bargain is a plain failure. I am here and I feel so jubilant.

For my third and final co-op, the semester before I graduate, I am working in the


Me and my fellow intern, also named David, before hiking some sand dunes

Center for Renewable Energy and Environmental Conservation under Dr. Tareq Abu Hamed, Arava’s academic director and the highest-ranking Palestinian in the Israeli government. I will be examining energy policies in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza and Jordan and making recommendations for the future.

Other interns are measuring water quality in the West Bank or examining off-grid solar energy in Bedouin communities.

Along with this research, I will attend peacebuilding seminars and live in community with the other students and interns. A few days ago, I opened my grimy plastic bag of Arabic flashcards and started adding new ones. Mahr taught me the word for environment, for My Arabic is weak, for pollution and for compost. I start Hebrew classes again for the first time in nearly eight years. In this way, I am drawing loopy lines from my present to my future. “Arava” in Hebrew means wilderness.

David ended his lecture in a quiet voice, “My children, they’re close to occupying someone else’s land. It may be too late for my kids. It’s your job to make sure that it is not too late for yours.”

In my head, the word wilderness evokes a forest and not a dusty desert, but I’m in the South, surrounded by mountains not entirely unlike the ones I grew up. Amidst all of this magical air, there are the solemn political and environmental realities. Here, we cannot forget that the world and this region are becoming less sustainable by the second unless serious concessions are made.

Today is one of my first days in the office. The real work, of finding our way from satisfaction to its opposite, compromise, is beginning.


Our Kibbutz and its date orchard

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On a Non-Rural Ancestry


What I loved most about my grandpa was his appetite for reading. Although Grandpa predictably slathered all of his main meals in a hefty dose of Heinz ketchup, a Nassau County Library card was the only proper thing that could satiate his hunger. Just before we moved him to Hospice, I tried to tell him about a book a professor assigned me. In response, he shouted angrily, “I don’t care!” That is how I knew he was gone.

Interestingly, my grandpa left me with one book recommendation in his late life, Willa Cather’s My Antonia. For the past four years, the classic masterpiece about life on the Nebraska prairie hung in my head like an unfinished homework assignment or a blurry memory. I could not bring myself to go to pick it up, instead preferring more contemporary, presumptively more progressive titles such as Citizen or The Sixth Extinction.


We built a wigwam with bamboo sticks, chopped ourselves

For 2017, I decided to challenge myself to read only books by women authors, so my grandpa’s suggestion felt all the more critical. When I was home last month, I went to trusty-as-ever Bookman’s and bought a copy for $3, giving in, owning up.

As I started to read the story of Jim Burden and his 1900s childhood, I felt something I never expected: a sense of commonality. There is a passage, near the beginning of the book, that stopped my heart:

“The earth was warm under me, and warm as I crumbled it through my fingers…I kept as still as I could. Nothing happened. I did not expect anything to happen. I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.”

I am writing this blog post from Stony Point, New York at a summer multifaith farming institute. The last time I spent this much time in New York, I was with my grandpa at the end of his life. The July humidity is familiar.

Essentially, I am spending a month of my summer living in community with others who are part of Abrahamic faith traditions, getting my hands and feet dirty by foraying into farming and learning from spiritual teachers about the best path to resistance and resilience. The process of farming is giving me a magic power, the ability to relate to a tradition of working the land that I never claimed for myself.

On our first day at the farm, we harvested beets. Kneeling in the ground, I marveled at my hands. They were covered in splotches of dirt brown and purple-red. It was so easy to lift the vegetables from the ground, a small miracle of someone else’s careful sowing, watering and weeding. As a neophyte field worker, I must scrub underneath my fingernails carefully, adding a new step in my hand-washing process.

Since my start in farming, I realized a new meaning for metaphors. I grabbed a pitchfork and stuck it into heavy compost, finally understanding the literal meaning of to “unearth.”

Out on the field, I wonder where I can form similes to the generations of humanity participating in agriculture. The story of a rural life, of growing one’s own food, is deeply embedded in almost every culture, country and time.


Minahil makes the perfect challah

To put in plainly, I have never before associated my Jewishness with farmers. In my childhood, I detested bugs and loved air conditioning. When I close my eyes and imagine my ancestors, I remember Grandpa telling me how his mother worked in a sweatshop on the Lower East Side, sewing a dress for Mamie Eisenhower. At Stony Point, I live with people who do explicitly link their Jewish heritage to the land. It makes me realize I could have been missing a connection that was there all along.

While reading My Antonia, I kept wondering how my grandpa was tied to Cather’s story. The life I knew that he had was never one on the open prairie; instead it was synagogue, PBS movies, the legacy of being a World War II veteran. What was my Grandpa’s recommendation trying to tell me? Why was this specific book the only one he repeatedly suggested?

My best guess is that he was, we are, I am able to draw happiness from the land, all of his stories dissolved into something bigger than ourselves.


Dawn in Stony Point, NY

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Back in Jakarta, our group attended a two-day flooding workshop, a joint effort between researchers at Northeastern and Tarumanagara University (UNTAR). At the workshop, the 35 of us spent the day in a conference room learning from a wide swath of experts trying to build a more resilient Jakarta, us picking up on bits and pieces of familiar terms.

Kemal Taruc, who did a Fulbright last semester at Northeastern, compared how Jakarta could learn better governance practices from watershed management along the Willamette in Oregon. Alldo Fellix Januardy, a human rights lawyer, gave a moving presentation about the plight of the kampung residents subject to illegal eviction. We also heard presentations about remote data sensing systems, flood mapping and land subsidence.

The workshop was valuable because it showed hidden connections among a varied set of things I care about.


Parasailing outside Bogor

Over the course of the semester, I wrote my senior capstone paper on how the citizens of Dharavi, Mumbai, of Slumdog Millionaire fame, resisted redevelopment plans. When I drafted my one-sentence thesis for the paper, I struggled because I wanted to include some elements about climate change. In the interest of having a clearer, more feasible paper, my professor advised leaving climate change out.

On Day 2 of the workshop, I listened to a presentation by an architect named Yu Sing. He worked with the people in Kampung Kota to design a community that encouraged social interaction and added green and blue spaces. As much as my brain will linger on the innovative designs that he displayed, his words stick with me even more strongly.

1) “A flood is not a disaster, a flood is a natural condition.”

2) “I see beauty in the disorder.”

If, when I came to Indonesia, I could discern beauty in the disorder, does that mean that there is also ugliness in harmony?

Upon landing in the Denpasur Airport, the flight attendants and pilots all greeted me with a knowing, “Have fun!” I cannot recall hearing that phrase upon landing anywhere else.


Juli finding Om in the airport’s meditation garden

Sometimes, when I look outside the window on the bus in Bali, I understand exactly what they mean. Everything here is so lush. The red rooftops, the purple-blue volcanoes in the distance, the gold decals on the statues, they all shine. This is an enchanted island. Here, the sea and the mountains are close together.

Initially, we stayed in a city called Ubud for five days. Along Monkey Forest Road, there were dozens of mostly empty restaurants, souvenir shops, bars and beauty salons. For the most part, everything was deliriously cheap. Nice dinner? $6. Bikini wax? Maybe $8. Many Balinese people sat on the stoops of the sidewalks and called at us, offering taxis or manicures. The most haunting aspect of all of this was just how much there was. You could walk for 20 minutes and see three, four, five shops with people getting pedicures after dinnertime. It was if the places never closed. By the time we left Ubud, I felt relieved, again.

A few mornings ago, we visited one of the most aesthetically pleasing Hindu temples I had ever seen. The Pura Besakih temple complex is split into three sections, in order to honor Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma, three pathways of stairs leading to what looks like pagodas on top of a big hill. As we walked towards the hill, many small girls approached us and asked us if we wanted to buy postcards.

After my time in India, I learned how to ignore these girls. The rules I set for myself included saying almost nothing and always avoiding eye contact. Last year, my roommate Lila spent a whole hour crying about child poverty in our hotel room. Her compassion was jarring to me then because I had learned how not to be soft.

This year, I bought four, breaking my silly rules and feeling nauseous about how little $2 or $5 means to me. Quickly after I handed the girl the rupiahs, I saw what must have been the ringmaster of the operation supervising our deal.

Buying or not buying does not make a more moral person. That day, though, it felt hard to think about how many tourists pass through the Pura Besakih temple complex and not see the children and adults who were there, too.


Maggie and Rachel at the coffee plantation

On these four small postcards, I tried to relay my experiences to my friends back in the US. Nothing I could really say worked on the back of a 4X6. I always got cut off. In some, I only wrote about the girl who sold me the postcard, the chipped nail polish on her toenails. In others I focused on the beaches and the fun.

And now, in the format of this blog post, there is no real cutoff. There is no excuse I can give. I could write for quadruple the amount I did on a postcard. Still, I would not be able to make sense of things. All I know is that inside of this chaos, there are bird cages that adorn traditional homes, tourists everywhere, first borns named Wayan and a forest full of monkeys.


The water is so warm you can wade in the ocean at night and look up at the stars

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Smells Like Pink Sugar


Giant Baby Statue in Singapore’s Garden’s by the Bay

The running (pun intended) joke of my first trip to India was one of our group member’s morning outdoor barefoot jogs. While some of us headed to the hotel gyms, this unnamed participant dazzled us with stories of sprints-sans-shoes. Westerners jogging in Asia has caused some controversy beyond my 2014 Dialogue. You can find an example of this in Mark Zuckerberg’s recent “smog jog” in Beijing. Aside from India’s comparable air pollution, the heat in the country in May is oppressive, the humidity even more so.

After considering a dash of my own in Singapore, I couldn’t help but think of bare


One of the views on my run.

feet, Indian cities and naiveté. Although I was nostalgically hesitant, Elisa clued me into the running paths along the Marina Channel. My morning run, on my final day in the city, was sweltering and I sweat more than I thought humanly possible. However, the run was safe and easy. In the US, when I go for jogs, I sometimes worry about getting hit by an aggressive driver or passing through a tricky area.

However, Singapore was wide open, clean and absurdly safe. I felt a sort of supreme confidence about passing through the sidewalk. At night I knew I could walk freely through the streets without worry.

Let me provide a bit of context. In Singapore, there are cameras everywhere. Some refer to the place as an advanced surveillance state, with stringent rules that provide protection at the cost of freedom. The Pink Dot movement, which seeks to legalize homosexual sex, was subject to even more restrictions during our time there. Despite the many thought-provoking conversations I had, we were there for a week. We understood what we could and left the rest behind.

Our tour guide, who was notably hired by the government, explained Singapore’s


A choose-your-own adventure game in the WWII History museum. If you decide to steal food from the Japanese government, you get stabbed in the thigh.

harsh penalties for rape. If a woman was drunk, he would not even dare to enter an elevator alone with her. This respect for strict laws was echoed in other spaces, like during a panel in which we heard from local Singaporeans like a pilot, entrepreneur and chef. All of the panelists we heard from agreed that gender discrimination did not exist in the small country of Singapore.

The city-state has a population of only 5.5 million people. I could not help but be struck by how empty and quiet the streets were. There is barely any traffic because the government makes it very expensive to own a car. During a drive back from a museum, our bus actually turned around in the middle of the highway. None of the cars that were stopped by our bus honked. They just waited patiently and came to a slow stop. Where else in the world does this happen?

Singapore invented the food court, called “hawker centers” there. It is a country where lunch felt like the most celebrated meal of the day, smack in the center of working time. I struggled to find distinctly Singaporean activities, cuisines or art – everything felt borrowed from somewhere else.

By my last day, however, something inside of me switched. If the smartest, most wealthy people dreamed up city it could have been Singapore. That day, I had my first-ever, delicious Malaysian meal. Afterwards, I stopped into an Arabic store where the perfume I tried smelled eerily like Pink Sugar, what I wore in middle school based on an answer Zac Efron gave in a Tiger Beat interview. From my short time, my read is that Singapore is a beautiful but ultimately empty city.

I flew out of the place with so many questions, while admiring an airport that was two years into the future. (The Singapore airport lets you rate every experience, from walking through its cactus gardens to the security line wait time. I waited for maybe 2 minutes in the security line. Now that’s what I call vision and planning.) What is the value in striving for perfection? Can you mix multiple cultures to create a new one? Should we really be criticizing a country that achieved great wealth and great success in just a generation?


I laid in the grass here and watched the kites float by. Few feelings in life are better.

Riddhi, one of the members of our trip, urged the group to engage while criticizing and criticize while engaging. I think this is an apt mindset to have. Here in Jakarta, two of the group members stayed back in Singapore because of a passport snafu. They just made it back and rejoined the group.

In their absence, I continually asked myself if I was jealous of them for staying there. I remembered the unreal Gardens by the Bay with fondness, the mystical Marina Barrage. Then, I thought about rickshaws and street stalls with smoke coming out of the top. I thought about the Jakarta McDonald’s worker asking Mason if he bought his shoes at Zara. It felt something like relief.

Posted in 2017 | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment