Sunday, March 30, 2014

Vancouver

I only got to spend one full day in Vancouver but I didn’t need more time to realize how much I love this city. It welcomes you with its natural beauty as soon as you land and it just keeps getting better and better. One any given day, your views include Grouse mountain, Mount Seymour, Lions Gate bridge, the downtown skyline and of course the harbor.

I was hoping to experience as much of it as I could in my limited time but unfortunately for me, it was raining on both days. I made the most of it by enjoying gems close to downtown. My first night, I met up with my lovely friend Rachel, also in town for TEDActive, for dinner at Cactus Club café Coal Harbor in Jack Poole Plaza. The restaurant offers panoramic views of the North Shore mountains and Stanley Park. I had been craving a burger and thin cut fries for months and it totally satisfied my craving!

Afterwards, we went for a walk along the waterfront to observe Janet Echelman’s beautiful piece, “Skies painted with unnumbered sparks” at night. It was absolutely beautiful. This interactive piece allows everyone to play with it and add designs with a downloadable app for smartphones. It really makes you feel like you are playing with the sky.
 
I came back to Vancouver a week later but this time I was with Doug and Asghar. We rented a beautiful penthouse in Chinatown through Airbnb and woke up to amazing views of the city. Our day started with great coffee from Musette Café, a hidden café tucked in an alleyway. Twisted fork was highly recommended for brunch but our late start resulted in an hour long wait for a table so we passed. We ended up grabbing lunch in a little bistro across from the Vancouver art gallery. With coffee and a full stomach we were ready to start our day!

Despite the rain, we signed up for a two hour walking tour. We went with Tour Guys Vancouver because of their fantastic reviews. Ali, our guide, started the tour with a brief history of Vancouver and its current state of affairs. Two things became apparent pretty quickly, it is eco-friendly and it cares about public space. There were bike lanes all over downtown. Public space is valued so much so that it is present in many private corporate buildings. Public art is all over the city. Heritage sites are respected. We learned the Christ Church Cathedral, the oldest church in town, was able to get a renovation by receiving a donation from a nearby developer in exchange for airspace. This city has figured out a way to get developers to invest in heritage sites! Needless to say, we were stunned and were taking lots of mental notes to bring back to our not so forward thinking city leaders. The mayor of Vancouver needs to have a chat with the mayor of Jacksonville.

After exploring downtown, we headed to Gastown. Birthplace of Vancouver, Gastown is a national historic site and the heart of Vancouver. It was initially a settlement that came about because of a saloon started by “Gassy” Jack Deighton, hence the name. The cobblestone streets are lined with boutiques, bars and some of the best restaurants in town. I didn’t have time to shop but I really enjoyed window shopping. One of Vancouver’s famous designers has his flagship store in the neighborhood. Check out Fluevog if you get the chance. I want to go back just to explore the little boutiques and vintage shops.

We also visited what used to be an iconic part of the Vancouver skyline, the Woodward building. The building has been demolished and the space is being put to great use. Developers and the city came to an agreement to include both market housing and public housing. The oldest part of the building serves as a non-profit office and a public atrium. The W neon sign was removed from the top and an energy-saving version is now outside on the ground. The space even has public art. Artist Stan Douglas completed an image depicting the 1971 Gastown riots. I loved how they transformed the building's identity from a skyscraper to a community space. 

We were really impressed by how much we learned from a two hour tour and really enjoyed Ali's company. Asghar and Doug even went on a public tour with him the next day.  
We decided to explore the waterfront next and took the SeaBus from Waterfront station. Our quick 15 minute ferry ride brought us to North Vancouver and Lonsdale Quay Market. We quickly explored the market and decided it was too touristy for us and headed back to downtown. Cold and wet, I decided to take a break with a hot chocolate from the world’s first international Starbucks located inside Waterfront station.

Our day of exploration ended just in time for dinner and per Ali's recommendation, we selected L’Abattoir. It is located in the center of Gastown between historic Goaler’s Mews and Blood Alley  in Vancouver’s first jail. I would recommend calling in advance because it is always packed. We had to eat at the bar, not a big deal but comfortable seating upstairs would have been better. It is on the pricier side but is worth every penny. The three of us loved our meals and really felt the mixtures of flavors were unlike anything we ever had before.

I flew back to Cambodia the next day and wasn't able to explore the rest of Vancouver’s neighborhoods with the guys but I hope to go back and experience it all over again in the Spring.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

My week at TEDActive

I arrived to Canada not knowing what to expect at TEDActive. The anticipation had been building for months. The attendees had been connected to one another through our group Facebook page and TED Connect, TED’s app for the conference. I felt like I knew at least a dozen or so attendees pretty well but I also did not know them at all. Would I just be able to walk up to them and say hi and expect them to know me?

The conference officially started on Monday, March 17th, but the experiences started many days prior. As attendees started arriving into Vancouver, they started hosting lunches, dinners, and other activities to get to know one another.

I arrived Saturday morning to a rainy Vancouver and was welcomed by TED’s lollipop sign at the airport and it’s banners downtown. My first introduction to the lovely people attending the conference was Ibrahim. Ibrahim was Doug’s roommate in Vancouver and one of the people I had met on Facebook. He was born in Norway and raised in Sudan and his family is from Somalia. Not more than 25 years old, he has already shifted careers from an oil engineer to a filmmaker. We got to know each other pretty well over the course of the week and what I love about Ibrahim is his ability to find a way to connect with anybody and everybody. At the end of the week, he had multiple people referring to themselves as his mom, sister, and brother.  I know I will be seeing him again.

For TEDx organizers, the events kicked off on Saturday. We were treated to a behind the scenes look at the TED conference in Vancouver. This included a 3D printer, a first class seat experience by Delta, a mini printing press by Target and all the interactive engagement stations created by TED. We also got to see the one of a kind brand new theater and watch some pretty phenomenal speakers rehearse. The wooden theater was built just for the event and will be packed away until next year.  Before leaving for our next venue, we were welcomed and thanked by Chris Anderson, the man behind TED, himself. It was a wonderful way to start the day.

We were reminded over and over again to be prepared for a workshop on a snowy mountain. That mountain was Grouse, located 30 minutes outside of downtown Vancouver. We arrived to rain and snow and went up the mountain for our workshop. Some opted to ice skate during our down time while others decided to remain indoors and enjoy the heat. I opted to snow shoe for the first time. It was a fun way to prepare for the weather in Whistler! The workshop was a great opportunity to exchange ideas and challenges with fellow TEDx organizers and learn from one another. Doug, Asghar and I came out with loads of fresh new ideas for our event on Oct 25.

Next up Whistler!

Whistler is about 2 hours north of Vancouver and is a resort town located in the Coast Mountains of British Columbia. TED describes TEDActive as, “a place to find opportunities to awaken latent creativity and let you rediscover the joy of making something with your own hands. Included in the TEDActive mix are TED leaders from around the world who are helping to foster TED's mission of spreading ideas: Volunteer translators, independent TEDx event organizers, TED Prize wish contributors and past TED Fellows.” I would say it’s the fun and less stuffy version of the TED conference.

I felt like a freshmen entering an adult summer camp of about 700 attendees. There were veterans that knew everyone and what to do at all times and then there were people like me, new to the experience and trying to go to every single thing so we would not miss a thing. What happened next changed me. I was constantly reminded to fight for what’s right and to always always chase my dreams.

Chris Hadfield encouraged me to conquer my fear.

David Kwong taught me human beings are wired to solve, to make order out of chaos and therefore we should never be afraid of accepting a challenge.

Amanda Burden made me think of Jacksonville and how much its leaders need to take the long view, a view for the common good.

Zak Ibrahim woke me up. He reminded me that violence is not inherent to one’s religion or race.

Charmian Gooch made us all rally behind her wish to end anonymous countries. Even took a selfie with us!



Hugh Herr showed me a person can never be broken.

Lawrence Lessig made me admire him immensely for taking on campaign finance reform.

Elizabeth Gilbert reminded us all that home is whatever in this world you love more than yourself.

Ed Yong made me love science all over again by showing me that parasites actually control us all!  

Sarah Lewis told us that it is in our nature to thrive not when we have done it all, but when we still have more to do.

Isabel Allende reminded us that society decides when we get old but the spirit never ages.  She also made me visualize Antonio Banderas lying on a tortilla.

Shaka Senghor encouraged us to change the prison system because it is currently designed to warehouse rather than reform people.

Simon Sinek made us realize that leadership is a choice, not a rank. Leaders choose to sacrifice and take the risk.

Kevin Briggs made me aware of the harsh reality of suicide and to always be available to listen.

Joi Ito eloquently stated education is what people do to you, learning is what you do for yourself, and to focus on the now rather than the past or the future.

Andrew Solomon made me feel tears of joy with his simple message: forge meaning, build identity.

Finally, Gabby Giffords showed me what resilience looks like. Her message was simple, get involved in your community, be a leader, set an example.

These were just the talks. Then there were the interviews with Edward Snowden, Richard Ledgett (director of NSA) and Larry Page. All of which were brilliant and made me feel extremely honored to support an organization that can make them all happen.

Most importantly, there were the people. My initial fears of how the week would go were put to rest as soon as the conference started. It didn't matter who was from where or how many of conferences they had attended, everyone was welcomed with a smile and it was as if we were all long lost friends. These were the most amazing people I have ever met in my entire life. They came from 65 countries and took my breath away.  They were open, welcoming, creative, brilliant and doers. I know that each and every one of them will change the world for the better. Some of them were TEDx organizers in countries where it is extremely difficult to cut through the red tape. They were from Uganda, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan and Egypt. They put on TEDx events and hope to change their communities for the better. I commend them and am in awe of them. 

TEDActive wasn’t just a conference. It was a life experience. I came back a different person, one who sees from a fresh new perspective and believes everything is possible.

I can’t wait to go back.

Back to the Real World

I can’t believe four weeks have passed since my last post. Sorry for disappearing! I have been meaning to write every week but I didn’t bring my laptop along for my 18 day adventure so I am a little behind. A lot has happened over the last 4 weeks and I can’t wait to get you up to speed.

I got back to Phnom Penh on Monday night and it was so strange to be back. It was almost as if the last two and a half weeks didn’t take place. I felt so numb on the tuk tuk ride home because I didn’t want to believe I was back. I missed my husband and I missed my life at home. The silence of the night was comforting and allowed me to take my time to process my emotions.

I had become used to my existence in Cambodia, without the luxuries of home and the warmth of my husband. And then by flying for a day, all that changed. Once again, I was enjoying all the first world amenities in Canada and was able to hug my husband whenever I wanted. It was wonderful! But to leave it all over again was really painful. It was hard to say goodbye again and it was hard to come back to a life of self discipline. The worst part was having a 24 hour trip ahead of me where I had nothing but time to think about it all.

Luckily, this period of angst only lasted for a day or two and then my life in Phnom Penh quickly took over. I am now back at work and busy with the next round of deadlines.  This week involved recovering from a cold and jet lag while dealing with the weekly things we have to do like getting groceries and doing laundry.

I finally feel like myself again and am looking forward to catching up on my blogposts. I am so excited to tell you about my experience at TEDActive and my trip to Myanmar. Stay tuned.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Three months to go!

Last week was my three month mark in Cambodia. I still have another three months to go but I know my time here will come to an end pretty quickly. There are still so many more things to experience and to look forward to in the remaining months, I feel like I am running out of time.  

Work has been extremely busy for the past few weeks and there is still so much to do before my contract finishes. I also have a few trips coming up and am looking forward to getting some new stamps in my passport. Next week, I head to Myanmar and then to Vancouver for TED Active (I'm counting down the days because I get to see Asghar there!) In April, I am heading to Laos and and then Vietnam in May. 

My French class is coming to an end this week. It was such an enjoyable class and I really liked interacting with my Khmer teacher and classmates. I hope I can keep up with what I have learned on Duolingo because I really love the language. I have also started to exchange emails with some friends in French as a way to practice. Shoot me one if you are interested as well!

Aside from French, I have been enrolled in an International Health and Human’s Rights class at Stanford for the past six weeks. This online course is free of charge and can be taken for a statement of accomplishment or just for fun. I am taking it for a statement of accomplishment. Each week seems to be better than the last and I feel my knowledge of women’s issues worldwide has increased significantly.  

The course is also extremely depressing. It turns out women all over the world are constantly experiencing human rights violations. Each week, I try to remain optimistic because of the small gains made over the last few decades but it is difficult to do so when I think about how much there is still left to do. So far, we have covered: human rights, education, female genital mutilation, HIV/AIDS, reproductive health, violence against women and women in war and refugee settings. This class keeps me pretty busy. I have four papers to write, two group meetings to discuss, weekly readings and short write-ups on the readings and weekly quizzes. The course finishes on April 1.

In other news, my new roommate moved in today. Her name is Soum and she is from France. She works with the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, otherwise known as the ECCC. I think we will have some interesting conversations about her work. I hope I get to attend one of the hearings while I am here!

I'd like to leave you with an interesting conversation I had at lunch last week. A colleague and I were in a pretty western neighborhood when a Filipino missionary approached us. She didn't want to talk about God. She just wanted our money, she placed two envelopes on the table and asked us to donate to God. I told her I am not interested and she proceeded to say, "how can you not care about God?'' I answered by saying it is each individual's choice and I rather not discuss it with her while I am having lunch. She got extremely upset and picked up her envelopes and then said, "You should donate money to God or else you will go to hell like all the Americans!'' I could not stop laughing and wanted to tell her that I was an American but she left pretty quickly. It still amazes me how many people in this world continue to think that every country is homogeneous. I know better than to assume where a person could be from just because of how they look. I am surprised others do not.