Monday, September 26, 2011

Freelance Work Published in South American Living

Prior to my summer travels, the editor of South America Living approached me to see if I would be interested in doing some freelance work for her while I was in Chile. The job would entail collecting information on the places I visited, as well as taking photos in order to create travel guides for the website. Excited for my first paid freelance offer, I gladly accepted and completed the job, collecting information and taking photos while I was in Valparaíso and Viña del Mar, Chile.

Today, the website ran the city travel guides based on my freelance work!

Check out the guides here:


Viña del Mar

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Beating the Bogotá Blues

Fat-skinny Jesus will haunt your dreams.
There is something about Bogotá, with its endless rain, smog-choked air, and unrealistically crowded thoroughfares that can cause even the most gleeful gringo to dissolve into a lugubrious puddle of sadness and tears. I should know; I’ve been living here a while and have experienced becoming the aforementioned puddle more than just a few times.

The key to psychological survival in Bogotá is learning how to stay solidified or to regain your solidification after you’ve lost it.

Wow, that came out wrong.

But you know what I mean.

Anyway, after nine months in Colombia’s capital, I have figured out a few tricks for beating the Bogotá blues and, lucky for you, am willing to share.

1. Check out museums—After the initial “living in Bogotá” honeymoon period has expired and you are locked into the daily grind, it can be easy to forget that you are living in the Athens of South America. Bogotá boasts a wide variety of fascinating museums, many of them free to the public. Granted, there are only so many times you can check out Museo de Botero before you start having nightmares about fat-skinny Jesus, but nothing helps beat the blues like a healthy dose of Colombian art.

Beautiful view on top of the Monserrate.

2. Go to the top of the Monserrate—
Although you likely rode the aerial tramway to the top of Cerro Monserrate when you first arrived in Bogotá, returning to take in the breathtaking view of the city can go a long way to curing gringo depression. I especially enjoy the contrast between the city on one side and the lush, green forest on the other. This high up, you are above the smog and able to breathe crisp, clean air, so pause for a moment to take it all in and remember how beautiful a place Colombia truly is.
The gods' nectar.

3. Get a Crepes & Waffles ice cream—Without Crepes & Waffles, few gringos would make it through their first three months in Bogotá. Although the food is great, the real reason to go is for dessert. It has been scientifically proven that a Crepes & Waffles ice cream can alter your chemical balance to induce a state of euphoria. Okay, maybe not but I’m sure they are close. My personal favorite is the Hot Chocolate Vanilla—three scoops of vanilla ice cream, almonds, whipped cream, and topped off with hot chocolate syrup. I think it’s intended for a family of five, but I polish off one of these babies every time I feel my morale fading. And boy does it do the trick.

Skyping with my dog, Gerico.
4. Skype with your dog—Seriously, it works. When I reach my lowest point and all I want to do is hop on the next plane home, a quick Skype session with my golden retriever back in California never fails to put a smile on my face. Sure, he has no idea that I am there and my parents have to goad him into sitting in front of the computer with a doggie biscuit, but just seeing his face makes me happy.  If you aren’t a dog person, I suppose a cat will suffice. If you aren’t an animal person, humans could work, too.

Climbing in Suesca.
5. Leave Bogotá—Sometimes nothing you can do in Bogotá will cheer you up and the only recourse is to peace out for a while. Luckily, there are plenty of towns within easy bussing distance of Bogotá that can give you a break from the big city. You can go rock climbing in Suesca, hiking in Villa de Leyva, or spend the weekend in Tierra Caliente. Even a day trip to the suburbs of Cota or Chia can give you a much-needed respite from the hectic city. With Colombia’s ample supply of festivo (holiday) weekends, it is not hard to plan a quick weekend getaway.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Video: English Day at Nueva Esperanza

Recently, it was English Day at Nueva Esperanza. A day filled with speeches, performances, and activities intended to get the students interested and excited about learning English. With an array of awesome musical numbers and literary recitations, the students showed they have what it takes to make Teacher Mike smile.

Even yours truly addressed the entire school to tell them why it is important to learn English.

This time, I actually took videos of the goings on, splicing them together in this video chronicling the day.


Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Tall Gringo in USA Today (Again)

Following up on my previous post for the USA Today Educate blog, today they published an article I wrote about reconciling the need to make money with the desire to do good.

Check out my latest article for USA Today here!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

9-11 Remembered

News report of the attack,
Slowly, I opened my eyes.

Blindly, I smashed my alarm clock into silence and collapsed back onto the bed to squeeze in a few more minutes’ sleep.

It was Tuesday, my least favorite day of the week.

But it wasn’t just any Tuesday.

It was September 11, 2001.

A few minutes later, my alarm’s buzz jerked me back into consciousness. This time I had to wake up or I would be late for school.

After dragging myself out of bed, I slunk downstairs like an Orc of Mordor to pour a bowl of cereal. My mom sat on a stool in the kitchen watching something on TV.

“There was a bombing in New York,” my mom said as she picked at her yogurt cup with a spoon.

“Really?” I said. “How bad is it?”

“I don’t know,” she replied.

The Twin Towers smoking.
The news showed two large towers smoking and on fire. Although I recognized them, I couldn’t remember what they were called. Five months earlier, I had visited New York City for the first time as part of an 8th grade field trip. While there, I had gone up to the top of the Empire State Building to take in the panoramic view of the city, but I couldn’t recall noticing the Twin Towers.

Just then, the World Trade Center buildings collapsed in a cataclysmic, yet oddly ordered manner. It looked like something out of a disaster movie.

To my 14-year old self, it was terrifying.

But I was more confused than scared.

Why would anyone do this? I wondered.

Bush and Uribe, former Colombian president.
Ten years later, I woke up in Bogotá and thought about all that has come to pass in the last decade, both for the United States and in my own life. I also thought about how the 9/11 terrorist attacks have affected my surrogate country, Colombia.

The Colombian government was quick to jump on the Bush administration’s “War on Terror” language following 9-11, relabeling the left-wing guerilla groups “narcoterrorists” to garner support for more American money. Although Colombia’s armed groups hardly pose any direct threat to the American people, the U.S. government increased military funding to Colombia tenfold.

Using the “War on Terror” as a pretext and armed with superior American weaponry, the Colombian military cracked down on Colombia’s many armed groups, performing untold numbers of human rights atrocities in the process.

It is a real shame how many politicians the world over have and continue to use the tragedy of 9-11 as an excuse to advance a right-wing agenda.

But that’s not what I want to focus on today.

A heroic response.
Today, I want to focus on remembering those who needlessly perished ten years ago, to honor their lives as well as those who responded heroically when duty called. Especially during a time when my country appears to be on the verge of a civil war resembling Colombia’s, we must not forget who we are.

We are citizens of an increasingly globalizing world; our decisions and actions matter.

And they carry consequences.

That is one thing we ought never forget.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

From Burlingame to Bogotá

I come from a small white-collar town called Burlingame twenty minutes’ south of San Francisco. Infested by nuclear families occupying large suburban homes with neat lawns and a sports utility vehicle in every driveway, it is the quintessential upper-middle class American town; a place where nobody locks their doors at night, where one can safely go for an evening stroll, and caravans of soccer moms transport rambunctious children who have no clue how good they have it.

I even won the life lottery when it comes to family; my parents are loving and supportive and remain happily married; my family continues to live in my childhood home; heck, I even have a golden retriever.

Burlingame High School
I went to the stereotypical MTV high school, heavily stratified with cliques ranging from edgy, artistic outcasts to grandiloquent jocks. Many students, including myself, drove our own cars to school every day. Attending college was expected and thus taken for granted by myself as well as my peers. Few would argue that it wasn’t one of the best communities in the country for a thriving childhood.

Every day, when I ride the bus ever-southward into the destitute Juan Rey barrio, I think about home and wonder what I ever did to deserve growing up in such a great place when so many must endure the hardships of southern Bogotá. As I walk the open-air halls of Nueva Esperanza, students come up to give me the special handshake I taught them. Some of the younger ones give me hugs.

Juan Rey
I try to contain my frustration with the world. These children are no different than I was at their age. They like to laugh, play, and occasionally, learn. Although they look different and speak a different language, their hearts are unequivocally the same.

And yet they are forced to grow up in a completely different world. One where emaciated stray dogs roam the potholed streets in search of sustenance, where teenage drop-outs rob adults at gunpoint, where the thought of attending college is as starry-eyed as winning a Disneyland vacation. Poverty and violence are as ubiquitous here as excess and security are in Burlingame.

Witnessing this reality every day, I gain a deeper appreciation for the life I have been given. But mere appreciation is not enough. As someone who has been given so much, it is my responsibility to help those who have received so little.

I guess that’s what this year has been all about.

But Juan Rey’s problems run deeper than any mere English teacher can hope to solve. As long as Colombia is run by corrupt politicians who care more about enriching themselves than uplifting the poor, there is little I can do to change anything.

I owe it to them to do something.
But just because there is little I can do doesn’t mean that there is nothing I can do.

And I am doing my darnedest to change something.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Video: High Hopes

To give you guys a more visual idea of what exactly I am doing down in Colombia, I created this video, High Hopes.

Hope you enjoy it!