Alain de Botton on “The Art of Travel”

The first time I laid eyes upon The Art of TravelI immediately knew that I would adore it. Not only did its giver have an impeccable track record for book gifts, but travel, art, and beauty, all explained through the eyes of a witty English philosopher?* How much better could it get? If we could eat books, this would be my first course.

And now, precisely a year later, I have reopened the pages (to be welcomed by a small shower of Domincan sand) to once again meet the text for use in a short speech assignment. I’ve come to the sad realization that rarely do friends take my fervent book recommendations into serious consideration (God bless them when they do), and so the speech is a fun way to share my favorite portions. The chapters chosen were “On Curiosity,” “On the Country and the City,” and “On the Sublime.” Although my real presentation includes a notes-sheet packed with delicious verses, for simplicity’s sake I’ve included just one per chapter here, along with my Prezi:

I. On Curiosity

“Curiosity might be pictured as being made up of chains of small questions extending outwards, sometimes over huge distances, form a central hub composed of a few blunt, large questions. In childhood we ask, ‘Why is there good and evil?’ ‘How does nature work?’ ‘Why am I me?’ If circumstances and temperament allow, we then build on these questions during adulthood, our curiosity encompassing more and more of the world until at some point we may reach that elusive stage where we are bored by nothing. The blunt large questions become connected to smaller, apparently esoteric ones. We end up wondering about flies on the sides of mountains or about a particular fresco on the wall of a sixteenth-century palace.” (pg. 116)

II. On the Country and the City

“Of what moment is that when compared with what I trust is their destiny, to console the afflicted, to add sunshine to daylight by making the happy happier, to teach the young and the gracious of every age to see, to think and feel, and therefore to become more actively and securely virtuous; this is their office, which I trust they will faithfully perform long after we (that is, all that is mortal of us) are mouldered in our graves” –Wordsworth in a letter to Lady Beaumont after his poetry was initially described as “namby-pamby” and “a piece of babyish absurdity”

III. On the Sublime

“‘Gird up now thy loins like a man; for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me’…When divine wisdom eludes human understanding, the righteous, made aware of their limitations by the spectacle of sublime nature, must continue to trust in God’s plans for the universe” (pg. 171)

Surely there is nothing more enthusing than the prospect of traveling, not only to new places but with such playfully enlightened eyes.


 

*If you need any more reason to read the text, consider that there is a portion entitled “The Exoticism of Shitting Donkeys.”

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Living Abroad Brought Me Home

When we observe how some people know how to manage their experiences—their insignificant, everyday experiences—so that they become an arable soil that bears fruit three times a year, while others—and how many there are!—are driven through surging waves of destiny, the most multifarious currents of the times and the nations, and yet always remain on top, bobbing like a cork, then we are in the end tempted to divide mankind into a minority (a minimality) of those who know how to make much of little, and a majority of those who know how to make little of much. —Nietzsche

Travel is like love, mostly because it’s a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed. That is why the best trips, like the best love affairs, never really end. — Pico Iyer

It has been a full week since I kissed my studying and service semester in La República Dominicana adios, flew smoothly through a 10-hour travel day, and crossed the threshold of my good old Wisconsin home for the first time in five months. I had told myself earlier that I would resist the urge to pen one of those “How Studying Abroad Changed My Life For Ever & Ever” posts, since the Internet (or at least just my Facebook feed) is overly indulged with them; all preaching essentially the same “carpe diem” thing. Yes, you should go study abroad! Your life will never be the same (obviously)!

But these next few paragraphs will be about something quite distinct: how spending five months in a beautiful yet developing country turned out to be just what I needed. Because I didn’t find what I needed there.

The central question that made itself at home in the depths of my mind throughout the entire five months was “why am I here?” And before I am misunderstood, I must emphasize that Encuentro Dominicano was an incredible opportunity that I continue to be 100% indebted to for revealing to me the beauty of service and community. Even more, these past few months could be viewed as a rapid succession of thrilling adventures, in which the Comunidad 19 accomplished feats we had scarcely previously imagined, while doing our part to leave our temporary home better than we found it. I was inexplicably drawn to the service-learning program in La República Dominicana, but it continually bothered me that I could not quite put my finger on why I was there.

Seeking out the answer relentlessly, I stumbled upon the “little” reasons. I was here to learn the patient art of living in community with 15 to-be-friends; I was here to be an older sister to Caoli and Carelin, my siblings in the campo; I was here to belt out “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” with the bright smiles of our Haitian school and teach them the English words for their favorite animals while a cuddly 2-year old was cradled at my hip; I was here to revel in the glamour of the open, glittering sea and to fail miserably at salsa dancing.

But by the time I had about three-fourths of the semester under my belt, I found in myself a desire that shocked me beyond belief, truly. Clara Elizabeth Jace just wanted to go home. This was astonishing because up until this summer, when someone would ask me where home is or where I am from, I took pride in explaining that I have moved a lot in my life and don’t really feel right calling just one place home. I was the independent, free-spirited wild child who wanted to discover and possess every aspect of life, intimately. And we all know that those kind of people are bitten by wanderlust and were made to explore the wide world rather than end each God-given day by watching Netflix at home in their suffocatingly comfortable beds. What was wrong with me? I became haunted by this aching desire to return home in order to carry out my unfinished business, business that was nothing more than a resolution to be a better person, both professionally and personally, to those who were ordained to remain in my life for longer than just five months. I especially couldn’t wait to start being a better daughter and older sister after relearning the value of family through the campo immersions. There is no denying the marvelous natural beauty of the Dominican Republic and of Misión ILAC (please believe me that some of my favorite nights were going on jogs around their tropical plant-enveloped trail) and it’s friendly culture. But while I was happy, my restlessness kept my thoughts turned homeward.

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Living abroad taught me how to be thankful.  I had this intellectual sense of thankfulness before, where I knew instinctively that I needed to practice thankfulness in order to be happy, but it was only habituated for the obvious things– I was thankful when I had a major victory in school, pushed my limits on those evening runs, or enjoyed a fabulous night on the town with friends. When not only those things (which did actually appear in their Dominican form), but the general order and cleanliness I was accustomed to in the United States, every single one of my friends, and most of my material possessions were stripped away for those five months, I had to discover newer, “smaller” things to be thankful for. My list (yep, actually a note on my phone): the lull of the fans, yuca, the rocking chairs, the spiral staircases to reach the rooftop terraces, plantains, la bandera, the characters of the campo, Sunday mass in Spanish, the comunidad and our awesome teachers/friends, familiar books, bachata and merengue dancing, the powerful sun, childhood songs I had nearly forgotten, technology such as Skype and handwritten letters, spontaneous adventures due to the gauguas…the list is extensive while not nearly exhaustive. Currently resting on my peaceful back porch in the States, it may be said that my thankfulness count has increased exponentially. I notice the birds, plants, and whistling wind as if I were encountering them for the first time. We truly aren’t aware of how good we have it here.

Living abroad taught me how to understand beauty. And that is absolutely, inextricably linked to practicing thankfulness. My individual aesthetic ascribes beauty to a certain sophisticated elegance, for example, on the rainy days my heart wanders back towards the seductive wisdom, history and art of the museums in Rome, the lofty cathedrals of sacred Israel, and the rolling French countryside in which I picnicked on white wine and fresh bread last summer, surrounded by my family and friends. Though the Dominican Republic undeniably possesses an intriguing history and abundance of culture, our service-learning program revealed a novel kind of beauty to me. In particular, I was returned back to the basics. Though I was admittedly out of my comfort-zone in the simplicity of the campo, I only had to raise my eyes to admire the sublime mountain range that watches over the houses. Though the road was not paved and we didn’t have running water, I soon began to see the beauty in the careful manner in which my campo mom, Olga, thoroughly cleaned her house every day. Though there were no books to be found, I saw how the kindness and piety that was displayed by countless members of the community is purer than any worldly knowledge. I could continue on with precious pearls of experiences, but let it suffice to say that the gift of simplicity revealed itself to me. All the while, I still did not lose sight of my more learned loves and made it my personal mission to leave Carelin and Caoli with their own petite, classical library.

Living abroad taught me what home is. With my renewed understanding of thankfulness and beauty, I could not wait to rush back and behold the familiar as if it were magical once again, to treat my family and neighborhood like we were a real community. Though far away from our homes proper, our experience had been saturated with experiences of community and family. I have long held that one ought to practice the ability to cultivate a home wherever one is planted, no matter how transiently. I had not legitimately put that belief into practice until taking up residence in the Dominican Republic for those months, and I now realize the poverty of that view. What makes home “home” is that it’s irreplaceable, unable to be replicated. Sure, enough time might suffice to reconcile the disparity between strangeness and familiarity, but the object of the majority of travel is to return home. With new eyes, a rejuvenated perspective, and a new treasure chest of memories and friendships, yes, but nevertheless to return home. I profess that never have I been more enchanted with my home, more thankful for my country, or more in love with my family. I have my thrilling, difficult, interesting, uncomfortable, crazy and refreshing semester abroad to thank for that. Living abroad brought me home.

When we observe how some people know how to manage their experiences—their insignificant, everyday experiences—so that they become an arable soil that bears fruit three times a year, while others—and how many there are!—are driven through surging waves of destiny, the most multifarious currents of the times and the nations, and yet always remain on top, bobbing like a cork, then we are in the end tempted to divide mankind into a minority (a minimality) of those who know how to make much of little, and a majority of those who know how to make little of much. —Nietzsche

Time Well Wasted

“It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.”
― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

There’s nothing quite like the flustered culmination of another school year to give a student (and probably their parents!) both the thrilling and frightening sensations from the passing of time. All good things must come to an end, but it’s especially tragic when that good thing was service & studying abroad in the Dominican Republic. On the other hand, when I lift my eyes to the future, I feel like my gleeful 10-year-old self trying to sit still and be patient the minutes before a birthday party– a nearly impossible feat when there is such an exceptional summer beckoning on the sunny horizon. How wonderful it is to have so many things to look forward to! Playing with this theme of time, last night I quickly jotted down some good habits of time “well wasted” that I’ve collected over the years and especially this past semester. They’re the sort of things that I usually have to push myself to do but that I have never regretted. At it’s core, growing up is mastering, through trial and error, the art of spending this precious currency, our funny gift called time.

The note-to-self:

  1. Give more hand-made presents: I can trace back my fondness for giving crafty gifts to watching my Grandma Noesen lovingly sew quilts for my newborn cousins as a little girl. Ever since, I have gradually taught myself to sew, crochet, knit, make jewelry, cards, and create various other items that are ideal for gift-giving occasions. Although the pieces usually emerge embarrassingly divergent from the original concept (still waiting for practice to make perfect), hand-made gifts represent beauty, utility, and a prized investment of time. It seems a little childish to spend hours upon hours making something that I could easily purchase, but I’ve decided that it’s a piece of childhood I want to hold onto. Those grandmotherly skills also hold their own across cultures, as my little sister in the campo and I are currently in the midst of weaving friendship bracelets for each other. 🙂
  2. Carve out time to read poetry: I can’t quite put my finger on the time when I first discovered the way in which words can share an experience through poetry, but I have been drawn in by  time and time again ever since. Even when I try to become swept away with the more comfortable tangibles of the world of business, my little poetry books seem to tap at my shoulder until, yet again, I fall in love with a vivacious poem. I have even acquired the pleasing habit of rising early some blessed mornings to read a few poems aside a steamy coffee. If that is something you have never tried, you absolutely must give it a shot tomorrow morning.
  3. Say yes to late nights turning into early mornings: “You can sleep when you’re dead” has become the guiding star to how much time I am willing to invest in my relationships. You never, ever lose when you invest hours in important conversations (or silly adventures), as late nights often lend themselves to, with another human being. As much as I love to read stories, I love being a part of one infinitely better.
  4. Embrace the dirt: Take off your shoes. I recently had a funny dinnertime chat with a friend bemoaning the fact that we can never seem to keep our feet clean in this country– but afterwards I realized that I’m really a fan of this deep down. It means I have been places, done tangible things and they left their little marks on me.  While I don’t mean to encourage actually embracing the dirt, this point simply is a reminder to revert back to that carefree, messy childish mindset that allows us to revel in the little things. So, go on weekly bike rides to get ice cream with the little kiddos in your life. Life is too important not to spend time with your family. Life is way too beautiful not to adventure into nature and breath in the fresh air. And, life is way too short not to buy that dripping ice cream cone and stimulate the local economy through your devoted patronage.
  5. Keep in touch with old friends: Lord knows that we’re all busy and stressed, but I know that I am always filled with gratitude when I receive a surprise “hey just checking in” kinda message. It’s caring enough to actively care for people that sets the great apart from the rest. Plus, it always feels fulfilling to make someone’s day.
  6. Acquire art and spend more afternoons in museums: As I graduated from the various embarrassing fads and fashions of my girlhood (if you want a chuckle: gauchos, aero shirt, and pigtail buns was the uniform) I have thankfully learned to refine and edify my tastes. I recently read a marvelous passage about such from The Economist’s View of the World, “Economists of the past thought it was part of their task to remind their readers that there are high and low pleasures, that many of the high ones require reason and the sometimes-painful acquisition of knowledge, that we aspire to tastes better than our current ones, and that such aspirations are sometimes hindered by profit-seeking businesses that cater to vices and over-emphasize the importance of what money can buy.” In other terms, it is our duty as consumers to signal the market to produce these “elevating” goods. Surrounding yourself with beauty reminds you to make something beautiful of yourself and your life– which is a very, very good thing.
  7. Eat and converse slowly: Here in La República Dominicana, I have really embraced the more relaxed, people-focused culture and my friends and I are fond of taking our sweet time when we go out to eat. This includes pre-cena walks, then drinks, appetizers, the main course, more drinks, and plenty of rich conversation. There’s always something to celebrate with each other– it’s just our job to seek it out 🙂
  8. Start and end each day with a prayer: I’ve been on and off with this one over the years, but I’ve recently resolved to get better. And that resolution began with a little story: One fine evening on a mall bench in Santiago, an old man with a baguette in one hand and bag of groceries in the other eased himself down next to my girlfriends and I.  We instantly struck up a lively conversation with this funny character. Several pleasantries, travel tips, and Shakespearean soliloquies later— he had been a professor for many years— our sentences began to drift upwards towards the divine, perhaps because it was Semana Santa. This old teacher leaned in towards us and confidently spoke of his unending trust in Him. He confided in us that he recited Psalm 23 each morning. Sometimes all we need is a little nudge in the right direction, and I have taken to reciting Salmo 23 each morning, simultaneously thanking the Almighty while practicing my Spanish pronunciation. Strangers have the funniest ways of teaching us what we need to know— which brings me to my next point…
  9. Always talk to strangers: There is not a single habit that has changed my life more– be open, be open, be open. Whether in the check-out line, on a train, or enjoying an neighborhood stroll, I have never been disappointed every time that I’ve surpassed my nervousness (or pure unawareness) in order to open myself up to a new face and conversation. In fact, that is how the majority of my best friends came to be. “How are you today?” and an engaging grin works wonders on us human beings, without exception.

P.S. The cover photo of this post is the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. If the trade-winds ever blow you to Minnesota during the 4 months that it’s not buried in snow, spend a lazy Sunday roaming around their paths. It’s good for the soul. 😉

The Story of the Three Stonecutters

After running the Santiago Corre this morning, I rushed home and through a delightfully icy shower just in time to attend Domingo Misa in the serene ILAC chapel.  Those next tens of minutes, I toyed with the idea of retiring upstairs to my bed as the tired tenderness of my body, the gentle breeze that played with my hair, and the soothing sounds of La Palabra de Dios nearly lulled me to sleep. But, I am ever so glad that I somehow stayed strong during the homily, because I caught a neat little parable that has had me thinking ever since. It’s called the Story of the Three Stonecutters:

A man came across three stonecutters and asked them what they were doing. The first replied, “I am making a living.” The second kept on hammering while he said, “I am doing the best job of stonecutting in the entire county.” The third looked up with a visionary gleam in his eye and said, “I am building a cathedral.”

There are three kinds of people in this world…We all know those first-stonecutter-types, indeed we ourselves default to that short-sightedness from time to time (especially on dreary mornings.) His is the short-term perspective; the inability to raise one’s eyes above the present momentary exchange of work for pay. In fact, its safe to say that such a narrow view breeds complaints, and therefore chokes out most daily cheer or any true sense of fulfillment. But, take the second stonecutter– his perspective is attractively furnished with a strong sense of individualism. He has high aspirations, abundant passion, and finds the purpose of his work in cultivating his talents to be the best. The limits of his imagination are the limits of mankind’s imagination; they are sky-high and greatness-bound. The driven individualist clearly will find happiness as he propels himself toward glory, but what of fulfillment? I think some of us already know the answer to this by years of trial and error. Again, with the third stonecutter, the audience is able to picture the very scene and perhaps draw parallels with individuals we have crossed paths with as he answers with a “visionary gleam in his eye.” We know something is exceptional here.  His response reveals the mindset of one who believes that a grander mission is always unfolding, grander even than his own solid successes. Not only is he making a living for himself, not only does the stone before him become more beautiful with every chip that flies from his hammer, but he is here, this very day, to play his role in a tremendous feat. He is building a cathedral. Here thrives purpose, happiness, and fulfillment. I am fond of the interpretation of the final stonecutter given by Drew Faust, the president of Harvard University:

The third stonecutter embraces a broader vision. Interesting, I think, that the parable has him building a cathedral—not a castle or a railway station or a skyscraper. Testimony in part, of course, to the antiquity of the tale. But revealing in other ways as well. The very menial work of stonecutting becomes part of a far larger undertaking, a spiritual as well as a physical construction. This project aspires to the heavens, transcending the earthbound—and indeed transcending the timebound as well, for cathedrals are built not in months or even years, but over centuries. A lifetime of work may make only a small contribution to a structure that unites past and future, connects humans across generations and joins their efforts to purposes they see as far larger than themselves.

Through such a simple parable, we are reminded of the big picture which always overarches our daily handful of time-currency. The purpose behind our everyday tasks is threefold: to make a living, to be great, and to serve a higher good. Our God-given task is to remember all three. I was asked the question “what is your dream job?” thrice this week in various interviews. Though as of right now I am not yet able to articulate exactly what I want to do as a career, although I do have a few conditions in accord with my general talents and desires, I am sure of how I want to do it. I want to always be aware of the sublime masterpiece that we are a part of; I want to go about my everyday with the vision of the third stonecutter.

Hold On To Your Humanity

Last Friday, the Comunidad 19 traveled to the Haitian-Dominican border in order to witness market day. The pushing of the crowd quickly pushed each of us through the initial shock of doing something few of us ever pictured ourselves doing. As my eyes soaked in the piles of dirty, donated merchandise presided over by glazed stares, I was overwhelmed by the atmosphere that vibrated the very air with sounds of struggling humans– struggling for their daily bread and struggling to believe in their dignity. During that day, I met more faces and still shared smiles, but I could not help but be moved by the fact that this brutal learning exercise for me was their ugly, daily reality.  Did they know that they were made for more? How could they? As is brilliantly noted in one of my favorite travel articles of all time,

“Happiness is important, sure. But it’s also common and can be found in most situations once your mind adjusts to your surroundings. You can find happiness in any slum or in any mansion, on the beach, in the mountains, or in the middle of the desert.

But what is rare in many parts of the world is human dignity. You know, people who aren’t treated like animals — used, ignored, cheated, beaten, mutilated, silenced, or suppressed” (5 Life Lessons from 5 Years of Traveling).

I have explored marketplaces before, most impressionably the Jerusalem bazaar shown below, but what really struck me about this binational convention was the distinct lack of crafts, or anything locally hand-cooked or hand-made for that matter. Everything was packaged in crisp plastic, evidently manufactured in bulk, and soiled from the transport. Clearly there is no fault in making your living by reselling donations, but the initial tragedy that I realized was the lack of resources and training available for the merchants to harness their human creativity and ingenuity in providing unique goods, services, and creating wealth. As humans, we take pride in the works of our hands. We love to create beauty and order when we cannot find it naturally in the world around us. I would have leapt for joy at the sight of one single artist.

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”Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor. It’s a gift to the world and every being in it. Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.”

Unfortunately, the picture gets substantially darker. Underlying the ugly market is the uglier disease of rampant corruption, bribery, and mistreatment. Whenever there is a situation where one group’s livelihood is at the mercy of another, there you will find scumbags taking advantage of the powerless

…but on that battlefield you will also encounter those who choose have turned their backs on comfortable, safe lives in order to protect the powerless. They hold on to what makes us human.

During our stay in Dajabón, our group listened to two talks by groups who labor to protect and defend, sometimes in the face of persecution– our first speaker had just been released from over 500 days of unjust imprisonment. Relations between Haiti and the Dominican Republic are complicated and overshadowed by miscommunication and misinformation, but there are always those who profit off the weak and those who speak up for them.

I know which side I want to be on.

On that theme, I’d just like to share a TED talk that I watched this morning. It’s uncomfortable, unsettling, and not fun, but it’s infinitely better to work at bringing truth, dignity and beauty to the uglier faces of life than to cowardly cast our eyes away. Hold on to your humanity.

Getting to Know You

“Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels.” (Hebrews 13:2)

There is something divinely human about hospitality. It is a universally-acknowledged truth that the measure of a soul’s nobility and elegance is in the generous hospitality that he or she displays. As a long-term guest in a foreign nation, I have had the constant privilege of being on the receiving end of such comforting generosity. From a sweet, steaming cup of coffee waiting for me each morning in the campo, to strangers taking on the role of self-appointed tour guides, to professors going out of their way to drive me to my favorite café, my time as a guest has only confirmed the comforting power of hospitality. But what of the duty of the guest? A snowball effect of experiences have let me to this conclusion, that my mom (and I’m sure mothers everywhere) was correct in insisting, one should always leave a place better than how it was found. Obviously this applies quite conveniently to messy playrooms, but as is so often the case, our lessons from kindergarten apply more gravely as adults (much like how I had the funny urge to pass out those “The Golden Rule: treat others how you want to be treated” rulers at the Haitian-Dominican Republic border yesterday.) Focusing on leaving a place better than how we found it gives us a great goal, while leaving the creative specifics up to the demands of the situation. I think its important to understand hospitality as a means to an end, that it provides a gentle framework for getting know a fellow human being on a deeper level. Both the host and the guest engage in an ancient, at times awkward, dance that allows space for a genuine relationship to flourish. Think about it– we offer our best to our guests, not because we actually feel any affection for them yet, but because we want to display our respect for them and our excitement to share time and space with them. To put it another way, the manners and formalities provide the avenues through which joy in one another’s company can be cultivated. At it’s root, hospitality is about the dignity of the human person, and that is why it is so ancient, universal, and continues to be needed all over the world. Whether through washing the dishes after a meal, arriving with a thoughtful gift, or simply inclining a listening ear, practicing the art of hospitality refines and beautifies our characters.  I have seen it over and over again here; the simple display of courtly manners, for example, asking if you can help with cooking dinner, blossoms into an unexpected friendship. No one can resist the inherent elegance of generous heart. Simply put by Mother Teresa,

“Let no one ever come to you without leaving better and happier.”

And how else to tie up this article but to share the lovely song from the King and I that lends itself to its title: Getting to Know You and of course, a timeless recipe from one hostess to another: The Best Lemon Bars Recipe. Here’s to good music, good food, and good company!

Bitcoin & Remittances: a Match Made in Heaven

I recently penned this little piece for my economics class, and I thought it might be cool (in a great, nerdy sort of way) to share– especially given the fact that my campo mom, who receives money each month from her son in the States, and I discussed the topic over our beans and rice this weekend.  Did I mention that I love studying abroad?


 

We live in a world that is consistently being revolutionized by travel and technology. Our 21st century eyes have seen many gloriously new things, but we also cannot help but notice the suffering that still exists in this world and the tug on our hearts to do something about it. What many don’t realize is that this is a fundamentally economic concern as well. We ought to harness our latest technology, the mobile payment systems and cryptocurrencies, to help alleviate our most ancient problem, world poverty, through remittances. Remittances are the funds sent home by migrant workers and they currently are entangled by many restrictions. In this article, I will illustrate the current problems regarding remittances, how remittances and bitcoin (the most popular cryptocurrency) make a great pair, and why everyone should care.

Perhaps your civic-minded friend emailed you the link to Dilip Ratha’s TED talk or very possibly you know someone who sends money home each month, but hopefully by now it is self-explanatory to extoll the virtues of remittances. They alleviate poverty and allow the receivers to stimulate their local economies most effectively—thus providing a mutually beneficial exchange that traditional foreign aid never could replicate. So what are the two major obstacles currently facing this system? The first is the exorbitant fees charged for sending and receiving the money. Remittances are a huge financial market, totaling up to $414 billion in the last year, and The World Bank confirms that, “cutting prices by at least 5 percentage points can save up to $16 billion a year.” That is an extra $16 billion in the households who need it the most, spending and investing it in the economies that need it the most. I believe that it is high time for developed countries to realize that we can best assist developing countries simply by harnessing the power of remittances and removing the current barriers that prevent impoverished families from receiving the hard earned money of their relatives. This is where bitcoin, the digital currency that lends itself to an innovative payment network, comes in. Ken Miller, the COO of Gem and advisor to Square, defends bitcoin in an article published earlier this year, “Given the inherent near-zero cost of bitcoin, if it never had any other application in the world other than to eliminate these double-digit fees and get most of that $5 billion in the hands of people whose lives would be dramatically improved, then that’s a problem worth eradicating with this solution.”

Frustratingly, the second hurdle is regulatory compliance. Start-ups are itching to revolutionize the expansive remittance market by marrying it with cryptocurrencies and mobile payments, but as recent article from CoinDesk notes, “Obtaining a license in the US is the single largest barrier to entry into the remittance industry and explains, at least partially, why there has been so little innovation in the space. BitPesa tellingly opts to avoid the issue altogether and doesn’t accept customers from the US at all.” BitPesa, one of the many recognized bitcoin remittance services, is forced to leave the US (by far the largest sender of remittances) out of the picture. Innovators can only go so far, now it is up to the countries to cooperate in easing the flow of remittances.

Why should everyone care? Aside from the human desire to help our neighbors, the answer comes down to simple economics. We ought to encourage remittances in developing foreign nations because they create wealth and generate trade, thus growing the economic pie. Through increased trade and competition, everyone is ultimately better off. Not only that, but it is clear from innovative companies—think Square, Apple Pay, and even Snapchat—that the mobile payment revolution is happening around us. It is time that we recognize and harness its potential for doing good in developing nations. As consumers, producers, and compassionate human beings, it makes sense for us to throw our weight behind the union of remittances and bitcoin. Let’s do our civic duty by exerting pressure on our governments to cooperate.

Bucket-Shower Baptisms

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

With the gentle eyes of hindsight, these past two weeks may very well have been a dream. But as I thumb through my smutty journal and study my crude, daily recordings, I am firmly reminded that they were full of rocky ups and downs.  Somewhere in between frigid bucket-showers, raw blisters, and the endless supply of hugs, I was taught something more about myself, hard-work, and friendship. But that is old news; that is to be expected with each new, uncomfortable experience. What remains now is to attempt to share, though in much less a poetic manner than that of Thoreau, an average day in our dear campo:

6:37 am: Wake up gracefully to the sun shinning through the curtain. JUST KIDDING: the roosters have been “heralding the day” since 4:00 am. I untangle my way out of my pink mosquito net, try to journal down some morning thoughts en español, braid my hair, and then all that’s left is to throw on my muddy hiking boots (since I was clever/lazy enough to sleep in my work clothes.)

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Buenos días! Es un día glorioso.

7:30 am: Enter Olga, always with a piping hot cup of mega-sugary coffee and a cozy, back-rubbing hug. Did I mention that my campo mom is an angel?

8:00(ish) am: Gather up the crew and wade through four rivers (yep, you bet we named them all) to get to breakfast. Discuss in depth the events of the night before, i.e. who won at dominos, who got offered the most food, and who bonded with a new friend over our weird American music.

9:00 am: I finish dunking my last piece of bread in the breakfast hot chocolate and hop into the bed of the community truck– the guagua. We try not to bruise our tailbones on the way to one of the worksites: the tank, digging, or tubing. Let the games begin!

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NB: when given the opportunity to ride in the bed of a truck, always say yes.

11:00 am: After a few hot hours of working on and off, the kiddos come by during their recreo.  They insist on singing us a new song that they learned, and I find myself fighting back tears because children are just so beautiful. Especially these ones. Always holding our hands, they fawn “mi hermana” before scampering back to la escuela.

12:15 pm: Lunch break, gracias a Dios! We all traverse back to the meeting place, a small patio surrounded by chickens, dogs, and mud. Before we carry on, we bow our heads to sing “Bendigamos, al Señor…” Never mind that we still don’t know the tune of the third line. 😉

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1:00 pm: Although uncomfortably hot in our jeans, we recline and some manage to nod off while leaning back on their plastic chairs. After washing my hands and face in the outside spigot, I daydream and watch the still, bright green montañas.

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2:00 pm: And it’s back to work; some sigh and some sing. By this time, much of the community has joined in the fun and we progress quickly despite the lack of palas y picos, our tools. I have a newfound appreciation for loose, light dirt.

3:00 pm: One of the local madres brings out grape and orange soda. Although never a huge pop drinker, I don’t think I’ve had a more refreshing beverage in my life– ¡Ah, muchas gracias! By this time, almost every able-bodied adult is trying to contribute in some way to the construction of their aqueduct. Some even dig with their bare hands.

5:00 pm: And finally, the aqueduct is another day’s work closer to completion! Our sore feet drag us back home over the rivers and through the woods to wash up before dinner.

5:30 pm: I arrive at my front porch to find my family reclining in plastic chairs and chatting up a storm.  They gleefully greet me and insist that I sit down to cool off and relax before I take a shower. I always open up with, “Ay Dios! Fue un día glorioso.”

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6:00(ish) pm: After another rousing prayer concluding with the beautiful “Oh-h Padre Nuestro,” we dig into the abundance of plantains, salami, yuca, and salad spread before us. I have a new appreciation for ketchup and hot sauce, as they are somehow able to make all the above taste like a gourmet meal (or maybe that’s the hungry tummy talking.) We thank the cooks profusely, and some of us girls get a free cooking lesson from one of the older women. Nevertheless, I am still convinced that those wrinkled, brown hands work nothing short of a miracle when it comes to the challenge of raw food and open flame.

7:00 pm: More members of the community roll around, and we engage in cards and friendly banter while the elders avidly matchmake the eligible young men and women (but c’mon, what a great story that would be!)

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8:30(ish) pm: The River Crew gets a ride back home in the guagua and we arrive to find a gaggle of our neighbors hanging at the local colmado. The party starts as the bachata music is turned up and the dominos are brought out. Quieres bailar?

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10:00 pm: Although my sister was with me, I decide to scamper home at a decent hour in order to pass some time with the adults in my family. We watch baseball and do our best (necesito practicar español más) to discuss adult things. Somehow, the conversation frequently turns toward the importance of education (surely they knew the kiddos were listening awake in their beds), and I don’t mind at all since I have a lot to say on the subject.

11:30 pm: It has been a long, long day for us all, but I know that my family will patiently keep me company until I explicitly yawn and declare that I would like to sleep soon. We hug, scuffle back under our mosquito nets, and I turn off the light after recording the new Spanish words of the day. While thoughts of home drift to me in the dark, I catch the whispered Ave Marias of my abuela and am reminded to dar gracias a Dios for my day. And now it’s time to rest. Hasta mañana, mi familia de ángeles– si Dios quiere 🙂

In Between Guagua Rides

“Aw man, I really wish so-and-so could see me right now.”

Whether out of humor, glee, or smug pride, every fresh traveler knows the above sentiment well. There have been many instances recently during which that the thought has traversed the paths of my mind– the guiding theme has been humor. In fact, I would even venture to say that travel is the art of learning to laugh at yourself. And to laugh incredibly hard. Please see below:

The Guagua

Thirty-four. This week I rode in a twelve passenger van with thirty-four other passengers and it was great. In fact, it was one of those times you rush to dinner, excited to brag about your experience over the beans, rice and salad. For all who need a reality check, or just a little cuddling, please take the preferred Dominican public transportation- the gaugua. The name itself demands the attention it deserves. Additionally, my inner poet requests that I mention the lovely local scenes one can witness through the wide-open windows (ventilation is key), and my inner economist adds that the fee is only 25 pesos (roughly 50 cents.) What a deal!

The Service Hours

Few things are more enlivening than screaming the hokey pokey at the top of your lungs while jumping amidst a gaggle of happy, dancing children. For a moment, the hokey pokey was my favorite song in the entire world. The funny thing is that rewarding experiences like such are the exception, not the norm, during service but you keep coming back because that brief and intense joy so far makes up for the tedious and frustrating times. Two weeks ago, I was awfully reluctant to climb out from my mosquito-net canopy each morning and hop on a guagua to go to my service site.  But part of maturity is gaining the undeniable elegance and grace required when leaning into such discomfort. Part of maturity is understanding that teaching requires entertaining, and entertaining means screaming long-forgotten nursery rhymes at the top of your lungs and sillily dancing, well, like the gringa you are. Having a few more classes at the makeshift Haitian school in Pontezuela under my belt now, I can finally say that I know why I am doing this. Little-by-little, picture-by-picture and song-by-song, I am confident that Sarah and I will be able to do good. And as always, doing good feels good. I could not ask for more.

The Salsa Hours

Two Fridays past, the Comunidad Crew made an appearance at a local bar. We were led there by our maestras y advisoras, Margarita and Kat, who slyly knew what they were doing, since we soon discovered that this was the Friday date night hot spot for all the elderly couples of Santiago– though it was still just as lively and loud as one would the expect the scene of twenty-somethings to be. Looking back, for confidence’s sake, it was probably for the best that we were primarily spectators that night. In fact, we niñas were happily mesmerized by a darling old couple who didn’t even make it to the dance floor; the man intercepted his wife right after dinner and began to twirl her around right next to their table. We all search for what they have.

Then in Santo Domingo last Friday, we were led by the locals to the promised land, and by promised land, I mean the local hot spot for dancing (and with partners more our age-group.) For all who have never tried bachata, merengue, and salsa, they are worthy of addition to the bucket list– in ALL CAPS and permanent marker. There is truly nothing like letting the music move you. Like the bad tourist that I am, I only have two grainy photos to share from that night, a dance and our addition to the signature wall. Thankfully, there are times so gleeful that one forgets to take pictures.

And the next morning… the Comunidad got the grand tour of La Zona Colonial: Catedral de Santa María la Menor, Calle El Conde, Plaza de España, y Museo de las Casas Reales. It was all so beautiful, but still my primary takeaway was the reminder that deep in my heart, I still yearn to be a princess and live in a castle when I grow up. 😉

The Studious Hours

And in addition to the little daily lessons that emerge in the sneakiest places, our actual coursework has also been marvelous. My studies have been a lovely mingling of economics, theology, history, accounting, and literature– infused with zesty Spanish. Not only do we examine the tumultuous DR-Haitian relationship through texts, but we go forth to teach English in both Dominican and Haitian schools. We don’t just learn about free-trade zones; we spend Friday morning touring Alta Gracia (which deserves its own future post, I promise.) Not only can we conjugate comer in the future tense, but we throw around Dominican slang words and hum our new favorite songs: Las Cosas Pequeñas, Todo Cambió, Niña De Mi Corazón y Darte Un Beso (honorable mention, always: Heroe.) Let us now take a moment to appreciate how endearingly over the top these music videos are.

There are also the universal lessons. The clash of cultures and countries is only a supersize version of the clash between individual personalities and minds. At best, it involves the beautiful mutual exchange of knowledge, best practices, and wider-encompassing interpretations of the world in which we live and thrive. Thus it turns out that travel is about the root of laughter: delighting in and learning from one another. Emerson is quoted as saying,

 “In my walks, every man I meet is my superior in some way, and in that I learn from him.”

I cannot think of a better way to describe my days here in La República Dominicana.

America, the Beautiful: Reasons I am a Young Conservative

The season of patience and preparation is over, as I have finally and entirely (even the beloved map is up!) settled into the verdant ILAC campus, my home turf for this spring semester.  Yet on this bird-chirping Sunday morning, my thoughts are very much back at home while I recline in the tiled comedor and compose an essay which means the world to me. I trust that you can sense my gratitude. I have recently been working on an application for a certain summer internship, and it dawned upon me that the answers which I was crafting have not yet been expressed on this platform, but should be. I customarily speak softly of my own opinions because I recognize that actions speak louder than words, but some topics are simply too precious — too public — to keep silent about. Political philosophy is one of them. While I intend to grow and crystallize my beliefs further with each daylight, I can confidently say that I am a young conservative for a few unshakable reasons. The Great American Experiment continues to hold much promise, if we stay true to the wisdom found in our Founding Fathers and historical documents. For myself, the key lies in this most captivating and most familiar excerpt from the Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

I still get shivers down my spine when I read those powerful words and reflect on their impact. Words that were penned by old men, years ago, but that actively affect me even as I sit here before my laptop today. Wow. Let this be a testament to the fact that although times, circumstances, and environments change an enormous amount, the truth never will.

1. Life: I am a Christian. This fact manifests itself in two very specific avenues in my political philosophy: I believe that life begins at the moment of conception and ends with natural death, and I believe that we all ought to live nobly and virtuously. First, God is the author of life and death. All other rights naturally flow from the right to life thus it is the duty of the government to vigilantly protect it. This is nonnegotiable. Second, I believe that we are eternal souls, therefore our lives and decisions in the present moment have implications bigger than what we can temporally observe. The direct effect of this belief is the call for virtue; our traditional American values instilled in this country undeniably align with Christian virtues and morality. The best news is that we do not have to merely await our reward– there are real, tangible merits to living a noble life; even the ancients spoke of such. Surely our first president says it best in his Farewell Address:

“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim tribute to patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness — these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. . . . reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principles.”

2. Liberty: I am a student.  As a young girl, I was nurtured by a liberal arts education through which I was taught to think critically and appreciate knowledge for its intrinsic value.  Now as a young woman I take on business, specifically economics, while still continuing my love affair with history, philosophy, and English. As a student of economics, I believe that we ought to have a government that will protect our rights and freedoms–including foremost the free market itself. It all boils down to the fact that free markets generally allocate resources most efficiently. Why is efficiently allocating resources important? It is crucial because it means that life is being made better for people– wealth is growing, lives are improving, and children are being fed. Once the orderly structures that secure our fundamental rights and freedom are in place (think: our national defense, the judicial system, the protection of private property…etc.) we creative beings have the space and structure to work in happiness. To summarize, our government must allow us the freedom to generate wealth by our human ingenuity. I am acutely aware that this is tricky stuff, and in order to further clarify, I offer to you this wisdom of John Paul II:

“It should be noted that in today’s world, among other rights, the right of economic initiative is often suppressed. Yet it is a right which is important not only for the individual but also for the common good. Experience shows us that the denial of this right, or its limitation in the name of an alleged ‘equality’ of everyone in society, diminishes, or in practice absolutely destroys the spirit of initiative, that is to say the creative subjectivity of the citizen.”

As a student of history and philosophy, I am convinced that the original designs of this democratic republic are the best blueprint we have for prosperity, given the nature of the human being. Doesn’t progress mean building on the wisdom of the past, not undermining it altogether? And lastly, as a student of English Literature, my mind has been fed by a vast and varying blend of the Great Books, books I don’t agree with/care for, and books that are meant to be delighted in for their own sakes.  It is through the union of my reading with my everyday experiences that I learned to grow in understanding of the world around me. Perhaps the best explanation is that all of my studies are inextricably intertwined, and it is through the collection of them that I arrive at the conclusion that I ought to call myself a conservative.

3. Pursuit of happiness: I am a human being; hence my deepest desire is for happiness.  I remember back in the seventh grade, our Socratic teacher asked of the class, “What do human beings most deeply desire?” Of course even in those awkward years of “long ago,” we were able to understand that the all-encompassing answer to that question is happiness. And now each one of us pursues that end relentlessly, with varying degrees of success and ideas of achieving it. As for me, I believe happiness is a decision. Each individual has been given time and talents– time and talents that will lift up ourselves and the world around us if we are willing to work hard enough. I know for a fact that every human has the capacity to be great at something, whether as a teacher, cashier, barista, doctor, garbage man, businesswoman, lawyer, social worker…etc.  It is written in my heart, in my soul, to want to make a masterpiece of my life. So too, I want the same chance at happiness and fulfillment for my future kids and grandkids. This calls for a society that will allow human beings to reach their fullest potential, through the right blend of protection and space. I am conservative because it champions the incentives, opportunities, and inner tension necessary for individuals to reach greatness through goodness. Alexis de Tocqueville states it very well,

“America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.”

Government should by no means guarantee the end of happiness for us, but rather we are promised the protection of the right of our pursuit of happiness, meaning the opportunity to do so. The hunger for happiness is inescapable, and conservative principles encourage other human beings in this pursuit, rather than relying on the government to bestow our personal happiness and prosperity upon us. For those who wish to delve farther into the ideas of happiness, I would highly, highly, highly recommend you take time to read Aquinas’s articles on happiness.

I am a young conservative because I am proud of my country, of my heritage. Clearly no human being, and therefore no country, is perfect, but that does not mean that there are not right and wrong paths– for there certainly is a right path and the measure of this is the achievement of human prosperity. Having traveled a bit in my short life, the question of where I want to live in the future is occasionally put to me. My answer is honest: I am open to wherever the trade-winds of life will toss me, as my wanderlust is openly alive and well, but when it comes time, I will move back to the U.S. to make my home because there is simply no better place on earth. And of course, since no conservative piece would be properly complete without a great quote from a great president, I give you these strong words in conclusion:

“The classic liberal used to be the man who believed the individual was, and should be forever, the master of his destiny. That is now the conservative position. The liberal used to believe in freedom under law. He now takes the ancient feudal position that power is everything. He believes in a stronger and stronger central government, in the philosophy that control is better than freedom. The conservative now quotes Thomas Paine, a long-time refuge of the liberals: ‘Government is a necessary evil; let us have as little of it as possible.’ ” -Ronald Reagan

NB: And for anyone who wishes to become a more informed citizen, I suggest that you take an extensive look at The Heritage Foundation’s Guide to the Constitution, as it has helped anchor me in my formation as a voting citizen.