Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Veracruz - Capital of Mexico's Third Race

"Here in Veracruz we have three races - Spanish, Indian, and Black with the blood of Ghana, Senegal, and Nigeria" - Taxi Driver in Veracruz, Mexico
The Zocalo in Veracruz
Statue of Yanga
The first time I visited Veracruz was for Carnavale 2011, the little known celebration is actually one of the biggest in Latin America. Outside of the West Indian Parade in Brooklyn, I had never experienced such a thing. Carnavale here is fantastic, as soon as you set foot in the city you are greeted by smiles, music, and dancing. Before moving to Mexico I did a google search on "Blacks in Mexico" hoping to find some semblance of home. What I found instead was an interesting (if not alltogether publicized) history of black slave descendants in Veracruz and also Costa Chica on Mexico's Pacific coast. I put Veracruz on my MUST DO list and embarked on my 4 hour journey from Mexico City 3 months later.

Contrary to Wikipedia's belief that most Afro-Mexicans have forgotten their African heritage, Veracruzanos celebrate the diversity of their region and their ties to both Africa and Cuba. From African themed restaurants to the celebration of Yanga (an escaped slave who founded the first free settlement for blacks in the Americas) - the people of Veracruz are very fond of their storied history as the first port of Mexico.
Chiquitas with Afros @ Carnavale 2011

Hawaiian Themed Carnavale Truck
 I came to Carnivale with my Senegalese friend Ndeye Ndack and we were overwhelmed by the hospitality afforded to us, accustomed to long stares in Mexico City, we were pleasantly surprised by the warmth of Veracruzanos. Even with the intensity of the huge music trucks and dancers during the parade, people who spotted us from the floats shouted Negritas and Morenas!!!! from the top with huge applause and even ran to the stands to grab us and dance in the streets.

Fresh Seafood @ El Negro del Estero
After Carnavale, Veracruz had won my heart but I had to go back again to check out the city when it's quiet. Last weekend, I quickly learned that Veracruz is NEVER quiet, even when the seasonal "Norte" winds whip upon the coastline, the city still feels more Havana and less DF. On the weekends, each square in the centro is filled with bands, jarachas, and salsa dancers. If you're familiar with the song "La Bamba" you can imagine the air here - check out an article on the songs' origens in Veracruz here. Music and the best mariscos (seafood) in Mexico permeate the city. We had already scoped out dinner at a place called "El Negro del Estero" from out last visit that has hands down the freshest seafood I've had in my life and I'm from Long Island! We checked out La Casona, one of the biggest nightclubs in the city but were dismayed when the music turned from reggaton and merengue to Mexican rock (which I could do without lol). We quickly moved to a local bar next door and within minutes I was hoisted onstage for a dance contest. The contestants were myself, a beautiful Afro Veracruzana, and another young lady. They saved me for last (I think my curly fro gave them high expectations) and even served up "Get Busy" by Sean Paul to inspire some moves from me. Needless to say I walked off stage a ganadora with a bottle of tequila and bucket of coronas as my prize.

Fresh coconut water on the beach

The next day we hit the beach, grabbed some lunch and headed to the centro to shop at the market and check out some of the folk dance shows in the zocalo. My French counterpart remarked that the dance of the Jarochas reminded her of a loose flamenco, to me the rapid footwork and hip movements looked more Caribbean, it's probably a mix of both! We ate dinner in the Zocalo at an amazing little place that was covered with photos from Veracruz Carnavale's heydey. The owner was a man in his 70's that was singing and moving his hips with every step. We again dined on mariscos but this time octopus in ink which was absolutely delicious. We finished the night with rounds of Pina Coladas (in the style of Puerto Rice as the sign indicated) and headed back to our hotel.

Carnavale's Heydey
Beyond the city, the state of Veracruz is also known for it's nature adventures, it has some of the best rapids in Mexico. We woke up at 8am and drove about an hour and a half north near Xalapa, Mexico to experience whitewater rafting here for ourselves. I had only been once in West Virginia but this trip blew that one out of the water. I'm not sure if it was the scenery or our witty guide but we had a blast. The rapids were intense enough to leave us soaked but not scared. We even finished our trip in hot sulfur springs which were stinky but indeed a great way to end a long weekend.

Not the government-created tourist towns of Acapulco and Cancun, Veracruz is an oft forgotten gem on the Mexico tourist scene.Carnaval dates for 2012 are February 12-22, I suggest a vacation to the city and surrounding state for a taste of Mexico that doesn't dominate the airwaves.


Monday, October 24, 2011

Changing Face of Philanthropy: The Pan-African Movement

I had to share this article for purveyors of this blog. Your dollar counts and the more we give the stronger our voice is in results. The women's philanthropy women changed the conversation over time to focus development on women and girls. The fruits of those efforts can be seen in Nike's Girl Effect, breast cancer awareness reaching the NFL (pink mouth-guards anyone?), and the multitude of women's leadership platforms at multinationals like Cisco Systems - i.e. Padmareesee Warrior.

Check out this great article to learn how this is affecting philanthropy in Africa:

Friday, October 21, 2011

A Taste of Nawlin's in Mexico City

My friends that have travelled to NOLA always scoff at the fact that I’ve never been. “You of all people should have been to New Orleans by now!” is the oft heard remark. Considering that the city is known for both rich culture and history, but also binge drinking and bare breasts I’m not sure which characterization they identify with me but I’ll go out on a whim and choose the former.

After 7 weeks of trotting across the pond and back again, I am finally home in D.F. (Districto Federal, the local name for Mexico City). I was well overdue for a girls night with my favorite chicas here. Not yet ready to dive head first into la comida Mexicana, I opted for more familiar fare in La Condesa. Zydeco has been on my list for some time, it's next to my favorite pub here and features creole and cajun cuisine.

We decided to order food conducive to rounding out the amazing Hurricanes and Martinis we started out with. I must say, I was skeptical of getting cafish fingers and crabcakes in a landlocked city that doesn’t eat this in the first place. The crabcakes left a lot to be desired…too much salsa picante, not enough crab, but the CATFISH?!?!?!?!?! I’m not sure who was in the kitchen mixing up that cornmeal coating but they were the! Add a little touch of Valentina (best hot sauce in the world) and you are in fried food heaven. We also ordered a side of Cajun fries which were also pretty tasty.

The music was interesting if not always good. The momemt we sat down they started a run of hip-hop mixes (rare for DF) the first of which was Jay-Z's "Who You Wit" over the "I Got 5 On It" beat - but I appreciate Hov at all times. From 90's rock to 80's pop, by the end of the night they were playing TLC's "Ain't Too Proud 2 Beg" as the live band warmed up. Mexico City never ceases to amaze me.

Good drinks flowing, and bellies full, my British and French counterparts were more than satisfied with their new culinary adventure. I opted to fill them in on the heritage behind the food of the big easy and regional/cultural American food traditions while we were at it. 

Zydeco is definitely at the top of my pre-gaming hotspots list. Right on Tamaulipas in the heart of La Condesa you should add it to your list of places to visit if you’re ever among chilangos (after you hit me up of course).


Thursday, October 13, 2011

From Food Stamps to Food Prize

Today we celebrated the 25th Anniversary of the World Food Prize by honoring past Presidents John Kufour of Ghana and Jose Lula de Silva of Brazil for their tremendous efforts in transforming their countries by putting hunger and food security first. 

I’ve spent the past three days listening to panels on global hunger, women in agriculture, the role of the private sector, and making amazing contacts. However – no interaction struck me more than meeting the Midwestern Representative of the USDA Nutrition Service. I actually met her in the bathroom, both of us were judiciously re-applying our lipgloss, and she made me promise that I’d visit her booth immediately after leaving the restroom. I briefly thought about the fact that this wasn’t exactly in my sweet spot, but I gave her my word and beelined it to her booth after my brief touch up.

There at the booth I saw a long list of programs run by the nutrition service, topping these off were food stamps, WIC, free lunch, and school breakfast programs. I thought to myself, they might as well have put a portrait of me on this board! I had been a recipient of these programs from my first days in public schools until donning my cap & gown and heading to college. These programs allowed me to focus on school without a hungry belly, helped my mom keep her income to pay bills and household expenses, and benefited countless kids in my neighborhood. Yet I never knew that these programs were connected to agriculture, in my head the USDA was about food pyramids and now "My Plate" lol.

Americans are just beginning to connect agriculture to food in a real way. Unfortunately, most of the discussion rallies around opposing science and innovations that aren’t completely understood. While I am definitely a fan of today’s push for organics, labeling, and urban gardens, I also understand hunger in the global context and know that it takes the right mix of tools to put a dent in the numbers of hungry people. Both of today’s food prize recipients made school feeding a crucial component of their strategies to leave no person hungry in their countries and each are well on their way to surpassing the goals set for Millennium Development Goal 1: halving global hunger by 2015. They’ve paired school feeding with investments and application of technology, policy change, and development programs that work. It can be done.

Reading the materials, I felt proud of my journey and extremely humble. I remember being ashamed of going to the store with food stamps (I was pre-EBT card) and frustrated about my inability to buy pizza or sodas at lunch. Today I realize just how much of a blessing these programs are. They allowed this black girl to go from food aid to food’s biggest stage.



Tuesday, October 11, 2011

This time it’s different - The Balancing Act

I’ve spent the past few days with my three year old and am boarding a plane in about 5 hours. This is no extraordinary scenario – I moved to Mexico seven months ago for a career opportunity and my son now lives with his father in the states. The extraordinary piece of this is that this plane ride feels different.

I’m usually elated to travel, whether it’s to a new country, a big event, or your standard issue networking opportunity – I’m always ready to “get there”. But this time - I’m not.

For the past 6 weeks I’ve traveled to 3 continents, 6 countries, and 12 cities doing what I love most – or so I thought. But sitting here, looking at this is giving me the deepest sadness I’ve felt in a long time.

The period between pregnancy and my son turning 1 was probably one of the darkest of my life. From the pains of feeling like a failure to nearly two years of my life being turned upside down and back again I probably should have been seeing a therapist and been taking some depression meds. The turning point for me was a decision I made to reclaim me and to relentlessly pursue my dreams all the while being a mommy my way.

My son became my number one sidekick, from committee meetings to step practice to coffeeshops and the office there he was. My friends soon became many Auntie’s and Uncle’s and I pushed through the feelings of disappointment and hurt bit by bit. The road hasn’t been without bumps, but this is life right?

Then came the opportunity – Move to Mexico, travel the world, start a new unit, climb the big professional ladder. I was beyond excited – Trace will learn a second language, get constant exposure to different cultures and I’ll do the same….giant leap! But it didn’t turn out that way.

Crazy travel schedule and news hype about the dangers of Mexico meant Trace stayed behind. In my head I thought, it’s a 3 hour flight to Atlanta, I can go once a month and visit and it’s a short term sacrifice for a long-term gain.

That has been working until today. Today my son said “I want to live in Mexico just like you, I want to go on the plane just like you mommy”.  The earnestness in his face broke my heart – this wasn’t the idea. As much as I talk to my son and tell him what I’m doing and remind him that I love him – doing this without him by my side often makes me wonder if I’m doing the right thing.

In my heart I know I’m walking in my path and that these are necessary steps to future abundance but today it’s not easy…it’s very different.

Circumstances and Born in A Slum: A Photostory

I wanted to share this photo story from Saikat Mojumder in Bangladesh. It was featured by the International Museum of Women and really had me thinking about circumstances.

Here it is on Viewbook

Friday, September 30, 2011

Rickshaws, Angry Birds, and Fried Chicken?!

16 Million people have got to find a way to get around right? Enter the rickshaw, the man vs. pedal driven cousin of the taxicab. Arrival in Dhaka, Bangladesh was a serious initiation in green transportation 101. Now under attack from the government for their part in the "jams" of the city, activists are fighting for the survival of the rickshaw as the only zero emission vehicle in this growing South Asian "megacity".

Driving from Dhaka on the 11 hour journey to Ranjpur on the northwest side of the country I couldn't help but notice the vivid designs on each rickshaw and my mind eventually wandered to contemplating a "Pimp my Rickshaw" competition. There are even motorized rickshaws. I've seen them in India before but the Bangladeshi's have taken it to another level. Jokes aside, I do think a coffee table on the subject is due.

Arriving in Ranjpur was amazing, every cash crop known to man grew there from bananas to tobacco to sugercane, maize, wheat, rice, and more. It's amazing what better supply chains could do for the economy of the country. Technology goes a long way when applied directly and even small changes have huge benefits for farmers.

Going from village to village I met lots of people, mostly farmers but also teenagers headed to college, newlyweds, and mothers whose abandoned coop had their rural homes looking like the latest episode of "flip that house". By far my favorite person I met was Majid, a 10 year old boy who had the with and personality of a rockstar! Majid spoke a bit of interest and promptly interviewed me on the whereabouts of my mother and father, he introduced me to his entire family with his mom asking why I was 27 and husbandless (I let her know we'd need another week to explain lol).

Majid and I's new friendship was developed via Angry Birds! No one had ever seen an IPad and I soon was sharing the game with everyone. It was cool watching them do video and take photos but Angry Birds opened everyone up. They taught themselves quickly and soon surpassed my game levels. This was def the crowning moment!

Leaving Ranjpur (and Majid) was a bit sad, so many moments shared under the banana trees but back to Dhaka I went. I have a friend in Atlanta from Bangladesh that once told me that Bangladeshi's were the blacks of South Asia. Thus far I hadn't quite figured out what she meant and then I saw this:

 That's what she meant!

And with that I sign off until next time....ciao!


Saturday, September 24, 2011

If we organize...they can't ignore us

Lumbini Gate marking the road to Buddha's Birthplace

I write this with arms and legs so tight I can barely move - a slight exageration but I spent most of my day hiking up the steep hills of Nepal meeting with women in farm cooperative groups. Nepal is a small country in South Asia bordered by China and Tibet to the North and India to the south, it is also the birthplace of Buddha. This cultural mashup of Indian and Chinese culture is evident in the food, religion, ethnic makeup, and unfortunately the preservation of the caste system.

Me in front of the entrance to the women farmers co-op
The majority of the women in the co-ops are members of the Dalit class, the lowest members of a system that places poor (and often times brown) people in a permanent state of disadvantage within society These women have come together to find better ways to feed their families, send their children to school, earn an income, and prevent their daughters from beign married away as children as young as 10 years old, which was the case with one member a few years back. The co-op gives them a voice, one woman put it bluntly "If we organize, they can't ignore us". [This hit home as we reflect on the recent execution of Troy Davis and the need to ban the dealth penalty in the US but I digress]

An hour away from Tibet

Dalit woman near her field in the hills

All was not doom and gloom, my visit was amazingly refreshing. One member of the group, a girl of 13 named Jashaipuri and I hit it off. After interviewing her she and I did a mini-photo shoot which quickly reminded me of my days as a 13 year old. Eventually she proposed that my colleague and I kiss for the camera while balancing yellow flowers on our heads, I opted out of that shot but obliged her request for me to shoot up the peace sign in consequent photos.

Hospitality in Nepal takes priority and it was truly an amazing experience. I took special note of the fact that the young girls and women, especially took to me making sure to layer extra flowers on me during the welcoming ceremony. I was even gifted an authentic scarf! My colleague later explained that it isn't often that they see a woman so young (and brown) being addressed in such a manner. This made me especially proud, this life is not our own and you never know just who is looking to you for an example.

Right after an official Nepali welcome ceremony!

Normal is RELATIVE!

"Normal is RELATIVE". This phrase sums up my frame of reference in life and is meant to be the overall theme of this blog. The sub-title gives you an idea of the topics I'll cover - if it sounds interesting to along. Development for me is both my career choice (int’l that is) and the phase of life I’m in, relationships - are important to everything I do, professional ones pay the bills, friendships keep me sane, and my pursuit of a life partner keeps me laughing. Ultimately this blog is about re-defining what normal means for me, in hopes that it’ll do the same for you.

Through my travels, my insanely awesome friends, my son (who I’m separated from at the moment - more on that in another post), and my work - you’ll get a glimpse of how life is pretty much what you make it, the only rules that matter are your own, and that normal is ultimately about what makes you comfortable and happy. Hopefully this blog will inspire people to stretch themselves to their core desires. If not, at least it’ll give me a place to verbalize the insanity of my brain! Happy reading:)