Adventures in Helambu

The original title of this post was intended to be “Leeches Fucking Suck,” but after everything that took place over the last 9 or so days, giving the title to the leeches doesn’t feel right. The leeches were a somewhat interesting B-plot at best.

Normally, when I say I’m “going on an adventure,” I’m merely dramatizing to add some flavor to what is otherwise a fairly mundane life. But my field visit out to the region of Helambu, Nepal fully qualifies as the most adventurous week-plus of my 27 years of existence.

So what was I doing out in the Nepali countryside, you might be asking? My primary task with Aythos is to design and implement a program evaluation survey so that the organization can begin determining the effectiveness of its program of training Nepali farmers to plant, harvest, and sell cash-crops to improve their economic development. As you might imagine, electronic communication infrastructure is still pretty lackluster even in Kathmandu, and effectively nonexistent in the countryside (not to mention many of the farmers are illiterate), so administering the survey actually requires us to go out into the field and collect the information ourselves. Since this is Aythos’s first attempt at program evaluation, they wanted me along to answer any questions that might pop up during data collection. The plan was to hit 6 villages over the course of 9 days, with the itinerary being Nakote -> Dechenthang -> Tembathang -> Ghangyul -> Bhremang -> Palchowk. It was an ambitious plan, and I was super excited for the opportunity.

For a born and bred city boy, I think I have a pretty decent appreciation for the outdoors. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the most fit person in the world, and I’ve never done a proper camping trip, but not for lack of trying! My friends in the Bay and at Syracuse know that I made plenty of attempts to go hiking and enjoy the beautiful nature that both California and New York have to offer.

The beginning of our trek!

That said, I severely underestimated this trip from the get-go. The very beginning of our trip saw us on a 5-hour bus ride out of Kathmandu into the Helambu region. We got off the bus at a village called Timbu, where we began a 5-6 hour hike to Nakote. What I didn’t realize was that this part of the trek (the hardest, by far) went straight uphill for the entire duration, for an elevation gain of about 1,000 meters. By the time we got halfway through, I was dying; my legs were cramping in places I didn’t even realize could cramp. Somehow I made it to the top, but not after a whole lot of assistance (my colleague who was born in Helambu took my backpack for me halfway through, and also got me a walking stick – now I understand why people use them).

Disclaimer: Gross details ahead!

Physically, that first day was the most demanding, but the next few days were tough in their own ways. Over days 2-5, I contracted and then got over a minor gastrointestinal issue where I started pooping a lot (I became a master of squat-pooping). During that stretch we moved from Dechengthang to Tembathang, and then through to Ghangyul in one day, where I basically moved like a zombie the entire time. During that stretch, we also passed through a pretty thick jungle that was chock-full of leeches. Not only did a bunch of leeches feast on my ankles, but somehow, one of those little fuckers snuck all the way up my left leg and adhered itself to my inner thigh, disturbingly close to my crotch (to this day, I will never know how it got there). Naturally, I had the misfortune of discovering this fact while I was in the bathroom; you can imagine that bathroom session was very unpleasant.

End of gross details!

In case you actually read all those sordid details, here’s a photo of AN ADORABLE PUPPY to cleanse your palate.

Things mostly picked up from there. At Ghangyul, we reached our highest elevation for the trip (2,500+ meters). At that point, the hikes got easier (and who knows, maybe my body got a little more fit too.  One can dream), the views were always spectacular (they were amazing from the beginning, but I could enjoy them more), and engaging with the farmers was always fun and interesting (most of them always thought I was Nepali, specifically Hyolmo, the ethnic group that resides in Helambu, so the process of them figuring out I’m American was always hilarious).

While things were great overall, I did have what was probably the closest near-death encounter I’ve ever experienced on the trip from Ghangyul to Bhremang. The first part of that trail basically ran along the cliffside (which terrified me the entire time), and forced us to cross a landslide in order to continue on the path. While I won’t say that slipping on the landslide would lead to certain death, the way things were laid out, if you slipped and couldn’t re-establish your grip before the gravel of the landslide ended, you basically slipped off the edge of the cliff.

So, I’m shambling across the landslide, using my hands to grab onto rocks that served as solid handholds, and digging footholds into the gravel with my boots. At one point about halfway through, the gravel under my right foot gave way, and I felt myself slipping. It was at that moment, for a split-second, I thought to myself “I could actually potentially die here.” Ultimately, I was able to stabilize myself and just booked it the rest of the way across, but it got real dicey for a hot second.

The danger’s mostly passed at this point, but just to give you a sense

So yeah, adventure in every sense of the word. For good measure, the way from Palchowk to where we could take a bus back to Kathmandu was a good two hour’s descent, through mostly wet, slippery stone stairs. During that last leg, I had my worst fall of the trip (haha, get it?) which left a gnarly scrape on my hand and a huge bruise on my ass. Fun souvenirs to take back to Kathmandu with me.

All in all, it was an absolutely incredible experience. Not only did I have an amazing opportunity to take in the gorgeous nature of Nepal, which is a huge reason why I’m here in the first place, but I also got to engage (in a limited fashion) with many of the farmers that Aythos works with. Helambu was a region that was badly hit by the earthquake in 2015, with many people in the region still living in temporary shelters. Nonetheless, so many of them took us in to feed and provide us accommodation (we compensated them for all of that, of course). They offered me medicine while I was sick, and were constantly inquiring about my health. These people demonstrated generosity, resilience, and optimism that is truly humbling and heartwarming. Being in their presence, and doing what little I can to try and make their lives even slightly better is an experience I’ll carry with me forever.


As always, here is a selection of photos from the trip. For more, check out my Flickr page!

And seriously, leeches fucking suck.

One Week in Kathmandu

Holy hell, what a week.

When I said before that I could barely even conceptualize what my life was going to be like once I left the States, I didn’t realize just how accurate that statement was.

Let me start by thanking Ian, Isaac, Taylor and Toby for housing me/showing me a great time during my brief stay in Singapore.  For many of you, it’s been a long time since we saw each other last, and it was great to spend time with each of you, even if it was for just a few hours.

Kathmandu…what a place.  It’s so difficult to describe how I’ve felt since arriving because it’s been such a whirlwind of emotions, but I’ll try and lay it out chronologically.

The first few days were rough.  If I haven’t mentioned, this is the first time I’ve spent a decent amount of time living in a developing country (China occupies an weird space in that spectrum, and having spent most of my time in China in major cities, I don’t really count the experience).  The internet at my homestay is pretty garbage (it doesn’t go longer than a few minutes without disconnecting), I kept discovering cockroaches in my room (which terrify me each time – I hate bugs), and I felt constantly lost because there are no such things as road signs here.  As someone that likes feeling in control of situations, I couldn’t help but feel like I was utterly out of my depth.

But having these experiences is precisely why I chose to come here in the first place.  Aside from the work that I wanted to do at Aythos, the NGO that I’m interning with, I chose to come to Nepal in order to get out of my comfort zone.  It had been 6 years since I last left the United States, and I wanted to reacquaint myself with the feeling of being away from the familiar and comfortable.  After six days of being here, I can definitely say my plan is working.

It’s taken a while, but I finally think I’m beginning to get my bearings.  Aside from just being able to get around with less trepidation (not being stingy with my mobile data definitely helps), this place is finally starting to click for me.  I’m finding a couple of go-to spots to relax, enjoy strong WiFi where I can actually get work done, and have a great cup of coffee (there’s good food everywhere, so that part is easy).

Work is also starting to make more sense to me.  I’ve found what I can really bring to Aythos that will make my time here worthwhile.  I’m thoroughly impressed and inspired by the small, but mighty team that I’m working with here.  Most of them are young, local Nepalis with an incredible amount of passion and motivation for supporting the economic development of rural farmers.  How I can help is supporting their organizational management, and teaching them skills so that they can run the NGO more effectively.  Being able to support them in this fashion is fulfilling, along the lines of the type of leadership development work that I love so much (not to mention that they all are interested in getting photography lessons from me).

And I’ve done a fair amount of sightseeing for just one week.  There is so much beauty here in this country, but the beauty is inextricably intertwined with the country’s state of development.  For every temple or palace that I visit, I take taxis and buses on dilapidated roads to reach them.  I walk past half-constructed buildings on dust and pollution-filled streets to get to my office.  In the most extreme case, just today prior to publishing this post, I spent a good five hours standing on a bus hanging on for dear life as the bus went up and down the mountainside through slick mud in monsoon rains.  These factors live in conjunction with each other, and is a helpful reminder that there is so much work in the world that needs to be done.  And ultimately, that’s why I’m here.


Here’s just a few photos from my adventures of the last few days.

Our triumphant selfie after surviving a harrowing bus ride up and down the mountainside.

There and Back Again?

It’s the question mark at the end of the title that terrifies me.

I’ve done a fair amount of moving around; certainly less than a lot of other people, but enough to have a strong grasp of what the process is like.  The moving isn’t what bothers me, it’s the coming back part.  This is the first time that I’m moving somewhere, without having a good sense of what’s coming next after the period ends.

It feels weird thinking about that when I have such an amazing opportunity ahead of me.  I have the incredible privilege of spending two months in Kathmandu, working with local farmers to try and improve their livelihood, and then an entire academic year in Berlin.  The experience is so phenomenal that I can hardly conceptualize what it’s going to be like after I step on the airplane.  The best I can do is just take things day-by-day.

But perhaps it’s precisely because of the fact that the next year seems so opaque that my mind is focusing on the only point of clarity: when the program ends; and to me, the day I receive my degree(s) feels like the edge of a cliff.  For now, I have nothing lined up after that, and if you know me at all, then you’ll know that I don’t handle uncertainty well.  Everything from what I’ll do, to who I work for, to where I’m going to live feels completely up in the air, which is a difficult thing for me to deal with (also, don’t tell my mother that there’s a possibility that I won’t be returning to the US).

I’m notoriously bad at following my own advice.  I often tell others not to worry about things that they aren’t in control of, which is clearly not what I’m doing now.  And that tendency has made this blog post dramatically different from how I originally envisioned it, so let’s refocus back to the main message (if you couldn’t tell, my posts often get lost in a stream of consciousness).

I stand before a tremendous series of opportunities.  I often feel bad talking about it because I get the feeling that I’m bragging.  But I would not be where I am today if it were not for a gaggle of amazing family, friends, colleagues, teachers, and mentors that have supported me as I progressed to this moment.  To list out every single one of those people would test your patience with my writing more than it already has, but suffice it to say that you know who you are.  Thank you for having a positive impact on my life, and I can only hope that I’ve had a somewhat positive impact on yours.


And now here’s a random collection of photos that I’m sharing just for shits and giggles.

End of an (Exceptionally Short) Era

Time is really fucking weird.

When you’re looking ahead, it literally seems endless.  A year seems like an aeon.  As you live it, it crawls day-by-day.  And finally, looking back, you wonder how it all went by so quickly.  As we approach the end of our last class on Executive Leadership and our convocation ceremony, I’m definitely on the last part of that spectrum.

I was talking with a few friends the other day about whether or not we felt different compared to when we first started the program.  I think at this point I’m old enough that my core personality and values won’t change much (barring exceptional circumstances).  However, with that said, I’d be remiss if I didn’t recognize how much I’ve developed as a person over the course of this year.

It’s almost impossible to articulate all the different sources of learning I’ve benefited from throughout this program, but I’ll take a crack at it.  I guess I’ll start with the easiest, but far from the least substantial: the faculty.  Between the brilliant academic professors, to distinguished professors-of-practice, I have learned so damn much from all of my classes here.  I’ve also engaged with so many inspiring public servants with careers that I could only hope to emulate, that have reaffirmed my decisions to pursue a life of public service and come to the Maxwell School, that I can’t imagine having made any other choice.

Then there are all the individual experiences that have pushed me forward professionally.  From teaching basic English skills to refugee adults at SUPRA, or facilitating workshops for the Conflict Management Center; to the vast number of amazing speakers (former ambassadors, policy experts, heads of government agencies, NGO leaders) I’ve had the privilege of hearing; to my Capstone project consulting for the Department of Justice, all of these have further enriched what has already been an incredible year.

And finally, there are my peers.  This year has exposed me to such an amazing group of colleagues and friends that I can still hardly believe we’ve been together and known each other less than 365 days.  I say this all the time, I’ve learned and grown as much from you all as I have from our classes.  Your variety of personal and professional experiences, subject-matter expertise, passions, motivations and other just weird esoteric knowledge have made this year so incredibly rich and meaningful that it’s difficult to put into words properly.  I have to put a special shout-out to every single person that contributed in some way, shape or form to the Radical Bureaucrats.  Working with you all on our teach-ins, volunteer, and fundraising events have made an otherwise shitty year in terms of global events into a positive experience.  To everyone that has had a positive impact on me over the last year, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart.


Over the course of the year, I’ve tried to capture pieces of this whirlwind experience in photographs.  Here is just a small sample; for more, check out my Flickr page.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t include a photo of my two roommates and me.  I guess I like these guys after all ;D.  Photo credit goes to Shweta Gulati.

Finals Procrastination Thoughts

I have a term paper due tonight, and a final for Quantitative Analysis tomorrow, so naturally I’m procrastinating with music and the never-ending pool of my own thoughts.

I’ve talked a lot about how my experience at the Maxwell School has been over the course of the last almost-year.  And sure, I’ve got about two months before I’m done with the first part of my joint-degree, and then another whole year of schooling after that, and I’m sure I’ll have another blog post with my thoughts more well-established at that time.  But with the way this semester is winding down currently, it already feels like a particular chapter is closing, which is insane because it also feels like it had just started not too long ago (it doesn’t help that a lot of my close friends in the IR program are leaving in the next week or so).

As I’ve been (trying) to work on this final paper, a song from The Shanghai Restoration Project came on from my playlist titled “Last Night of the Dynasty.”  It had been a while since I had dug into SRP (I had discovered that album several years ago as my former co-workers at the time can attest to, since I played it incessantly at work), and so I stopped my writing to listen through the lyrics.  It struck me just how perfect they were to the current moment.  I have the full lyrics posted below, but as I write this, this verse is particularly salient:

When the night gives way to morning
We will go our separate ways
Let’s make this
Our night to celebrate


“Last Night of the Dynasty” by The Shanghai Restoration Project, ft. Julie Ann Sgroi

‘Round the clock we battled hard all year
Soaked ourselves in sweat, our blood and our tears
Conquerors we end up gathered here
Unified but soon we say goodbye
When tomorrow becomes today

Some wanna change the world
Some just want the fame
Some might choose to disappear
While the rest of us remain

When the night gives way to morning
We will go our separate ways
Let’s make this
Our night to celebrate

Sentimental air becomes so thick
Movers, shakers, wanderers in our midst
Commit to memory every single face
Wish the best and leave the rest to fate
Say farewell tonight

Some try to face the truth
Some would rather live a lie
Most of us will spend our years
Treading both sides of the line

When the night gives way to morning
We will go our separate ways
Let’s make this
Our night to celebrate

One round, better drink it all down
Try to live it up now, don’t wait for another day

My Life Soundtrack

Anyone that knows me well knows I’m an introvert.  I may not act like one, and I really do enjoy the company of people, but my social tank is only so full, and after a while, I need to recharge.  There are a lot of ways for me to find my personal space.  Sometimes it’s reading, or writing, or video games, or photography, or dancing, or cooking.  But when I’m particularly exhausted, it’s music.

Which is kind of funny, since I can’t actually play music.  So that means either singing, or more often, just listening to music.  The ability for me to just listen to music for hours on end comes from my brother.  When I was a kid, he’d lend me CD’s.  One at a time.  And I’d listen to them, thoroughly, for a week until that music was ingrained in me.  And then he’d lend me another.

So I’ve learned to love just diving into an album, with focus, uninterrupted.  And very little in the world makes me happier than finding an album that is perfect for thoughtful listening.  Where some combination of time and space, lyrics, music, and composition makes it effortless for me to get lost in the record.

I just found one such album, which is perfect timing because this semester has been a sprint from the very beginning.  I had a final for my winter course the second week of class.  I jammed a full semester’s worth of credit hours into six sessions over a month.  I’ve been trying to stay up-to-date with every single awful Cabinet nomination, piece of legislation, and executive order that is now part of Trump’s America.  And I’ve worked with some of the most dedicated, competent and amazing friends to put together a campus teach-in that exceeded all our expectations.  Along the way, I also marched in Washington DC, showed solidarity at an airport and saw Hamilton on Broadway.

It’s been exhausting.  Entirely in a good way (at least…as good as things can be), but exhausting nonetheless.  So when I discovered Gallant’s album Ology, it felt serendipitous.  It suits my mood perfectly: each track is thoughtful and layered.  It confronts insecurity, doubt and struggle, while maintaining hope and faith.  I can’t make a decision on which song is my favorite.  It’s the perfect soundtrack to help me slow down and process the last few months.

It also prompted me to make my first real recording in a long time.  I’ve included it below.  It’s not great: I’m rusty and nervous, and trying to reduce the vocals of the original song did some weird things to the backtrack.  But it’s there, and it’s me.  I’ve also included what is (as of this very minute) my favorite song of the album so you can get a taste of how the album actually sounds, as opposed to my bastardization of it.

 

2016 in Review

There are a lot of mixed emotions associated with the year 2016.  I suppose I should just get the obvious out of the way.  Myself and a lot of people that I know are still reeling from the results of the election.  I don’t want to get into politics too much, but thinking about what Trump’s presidency will mean for all of the issues I care about, and then seeing him fill his Cabinet with climate change-deniers, oil executives, anti-minimum wage CEOs, and other billionaires is more than a bit discouraging.

Trump isn’t even the only star on the list of “reasons why 2016 was a shitty fucking year.”  Brexit has thrown the global economy and the future of the EU in turmoil, Colombia’s referendum result was a step back for the peace process, and destruction continues to rain down in Syria.  By a lot of measures, this year has been pretty bleak.

And yet it’s more important now than ever to not give in to despair, to take a stand and fight for those things (and those people) you care about.  And that brings me to what has been amazing about 2016.  Earlier this year, I moved away from Berkeley and the Bay Area where I’ve considered home for the last 8 years.  Moving to Syracuse was a daunting task: I was going somewhere completely unfamiliar, surrounded by people who I had no idea if I’d get along with.

I had more than a little bit of trepidation when I started the MPA at Maxwell.  Everyone seemed so interesting, with incredible work and life experiences, and here I was, a glorified canvasser who was an organizer for a nonprofit working on a super niche issue.  And yet, over the course of just one semester (plus one summer), I’ve gotten to know so many people so well, it’s almost overwhelming.  Everyone here has that issue that they are insanely passionate about, and seeing the way their eyes light up when they get a chance to discuss it is nothing short of inspiring.

It’s this experience that has given me hope for the future.  To wake up every morning and learn with and from this incredible group of people, has been the greatest privilege I’ve ever known.  To everyone that I’ve met at Maxwell, thank you for making this the richest six months I’ve ever experienced.  I know there’s still a ton of winter left in Syracuse, but there’s no one else I’d rather spend it with.

And with that, I’ll end this post with some photos from the semester and a quote from my amazing cousin Timmy, who’s always an inspiration: “Happy holidays, watch Rogue One and dream of Rebellion.”

Time is Winding Down

T-minus two weeks.

I should really be asleep right now, but I’ve been tossing and turning for the last two hours to no avail.  The imminence of my departure has only really just dawned on me, as most of my possessions now sit in boxes, waiting to be moved back to Los Angeles and then to New York.  You know, sometimes I think I’m better at articulating complex social structures than I am my own inner thoughts, but right now, I’m making the attempt in the hopes of triggering a catharsis that will help settle my mind.

I’ve always thought of myself as a restless soul, and I’ve worked very hard to be in the position that I am currently in now.  I’ve spent the past three years thinking about what I wanted to do next, what my goals were, and how I could go about achieving them.  I always tried to appreciate the present, which I don’t think I failed at, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t constantly have an eye toward the future.

But now, being on the cusp has forced me truly confront what I’m leaving behind; and it’s a lot.  I’ve spent the last 8 years of my life in this place.  I’ve come to learn many of its nooks and crannies.  The people here are among the closest friends I’ve ever had, and for the last 3 years, I’ve walked into the same office every Monday through Friday where I know I do meaningful (if not the most lucrative) work.

There’s comfort in that familiarity, but it’s more than that.  These are people that I’m comfortable being vulnerable in front of, and that I know won’t judge me for my insecurities; they’re relationships that don’t come about everyday.  The thought of losing that is a little more difficult than I had originally anticipated.

At the end of the day, I know that I’ll be okay.  I know that my passion, ambition, and resilience will carry me through.  But as with everything else in life, getting to that point is a process, and laying this out has helped me work through it.  I should really sleep now.

Kicking Off the Year of the Monkey

Yes, I know it’s been almost a year since my last blog post.  This is how it always is; let’s move on.

A lot has happened in the last 11 months, and the times, they are a-changing.  Not all of it is going to come out now (I’m still personally processing a lot of thoughts), but I wanted to jot down whatever I can in the hopes that it will help me organize everything that’s percolating in my head.

However, before I begin, here are a few photos of my my trip to Yosemite National Park back in August 2015.  The short version of how my trip went: it was absolutely amazing.  Being away and surrounded by stunning nature was exactly what I needed in terms of a vacation.  To see the full album, click here!

IMG_4740-13     IMG_4815-10

There seriously were way too many stunning views to photograph.


So, for the better part of this past year, I have been mired in the process of applying for graduate school (if anyone’s interested, for a Masters in Public Administration).  To say the least, it’s been a long and tedious process.  Over the course of the summer and into the fall, I was studying for and took the GRE (which forced me to revisit high school level math…which was not fun).  In the fall and through the winter, I took an online economics course at my local community college and submitted applications to 7 graduate programs.

The entire process itself has forced me into an extended period of self-reflection.  The sheer financial burden of all the costs associated with just submitting a competitive application meant that I had to be absolutely certain this was the path I wanted to take.  Then, writing compelling personal statements meant having to thoroughly evaluate my personal motivations and career goals.  It’s been arduous, humbling and utterly terrifying.

And it’s all culminated in this moment.  Two days ago, I received my first admissions response from the Maxwell School at Syracuse University and, to my complete amazement, I was accepted into their dual-degree program.  As one of my top-two choices, I’m still a bit in shock over it (a small, paranoid part of me is still waiting to receive an email saying that it was a mistake).

Instantly, everything has gone from abstract to surreal.  The next stage of my life has, thus far, always been a vision; a concept; a indistinct goal to work toward.  Now, it’s suddenly within my grasp.  While the start-date for my program is still several months away, it’s only a couple months away.  And while nothing is set in stone yet (is anything ever?) I’m planning for the future.  I’m thinking about what personal belongings to get rid of to minimize what I have to move.  I’m planning a cross-country trip to get myself to the East Coast.  My housemates are putting together a bucket list of things I need to do before I move.

The whole thing has seriously blindsided me.  Eventually, I’ll be able to formulate my thoughts, articulate how I truly feel about leaving my job, my friends and this place that, in the last 7 years, I’ve fallen madly in love with.  But for now, it’s a flood.  Time to swim.

Life in 35mm

This has been a really long week.  Once my internship ended today, what would normally have been another installment of the “Saturdays in SF” series become more of a “how many good photos can I get between Sutter and Montgomery BART?” piece.  Turns out the answer is two.  But aside from that, the other thing I did today was get the film photos that I developed recently scanned so that I could upload them online, which is going to be the majority of the photos I’m showing here.  Most of these film shots are from my trip to Seattle way back in September, and I’m really happy about how a lot of them turned out!  Feel free to take a look, and as always, the rest of them can be seen on Flickr.

Additionally, I am also mentally working on a short story that I’m hoping to write in the next week.  It’s a bit of a personal piece, so it’s been difficult to put it together, but I’m looking forward to sharing it with folks once I’ve got it down.

IMG_3650-1     IMG_3651-2

More shots of the Financial District, including the underside of the entrance to One Post Street.

2     9

A few of the photos from my film roll.  One of the view of Berkeley from Panoramic Way, the other of the Seattle skyline.