Thoughts on Winter Solstice

I have never given much thought to the significance of winter solstice, although several cherished celebrations of joy such as Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Diwali, and Christmas owe their genesis to the event. During winter solstice, we observe the longest night of the year. On its eve, I happened across this Bob Ross clip where he talks about darkness and light. For those of us grieving the loss of a loved one, we know all too well the weight of darkness. For the past 8 months and today, our first Christmas without Dad, the light and love of friends and family have helped navigate this dark space. Because of them, I know that night is not the absence of light, but rather a reminder of it. I am very grateful to know this truth so fully.

Happy winter solstice. May your light shine bright this new year. And Merry Christmas, Dad.

“You gotta have opposites. Dark and light. Light and dark. If you have light and light, you have nothing. If you have dark and dark, you basically have nothing. It’s like in life. Gotta have a bit of sadness once in awhile so you know when the good times come.” Bob Ross

SpiceCycle Adventure

This past week I biked through the island nation of Sri Lanka for 7 days. All planning and logistics were handled by Grasshopper Adventures, a bike tour company based in Asia. Paying for their services was an indulgence that allowed us to just show up and pedal.

Our route through the Central Province’s lush interior was as challenging as it was idyllic. The sharp inclines, tight switchbacks, and harrowing hairpin descents provided many opportunities to test our stamina and adrenaline functions. On the first day of biking we finished in Gampola and boarded a train for what is considered one of the most scenic train rides in the world. During the 3-hour ride, we traveled through Sri Lanka’s famed tea country with magnificent views of its terraced landscape.  I shared a railcar with locals who were equally thrilled by the atmospheric experience. At one point, every passenger had their head out the window or out one of the open doors to snap pictures, wave to people, and marvel the bucolic scenery.

Our subsequent riding days featured meandering rural roads, more steep climbs, and more hair-raising downhills under virgin rainforest canopy, along tea plantations, through a few frenetic towns bursting with blinged out tuktuks, and past school yards of wide-eyed children waving ecstatically at us. Every day featured varied terrain – my favourites were the bumpy dirt roads and the smooth highways in the Southern Province where we curiously had near-exclusive domain. Curiously, stray dogs sleeping in the lanes greatly outnumbered motor vehicles (estimated ratio: 3 sleeping or somnambulant canines to 1 moped).

When we needed breaks from the undulated landscape, we stopped for wild King coconut milk (a variety of coconut used in ayurvedic brews to refresh and expel heat), tropical juices, coconut roti, wade (pronounced wah-dee), and water refills (pro tip: drink 1 bottle of water every hour). Between rides, we enjoyed a nature walk in the Sinharaja Rainforest, a hike to World’s End in Horton Plains, and a safari in Yala National Park where birds and elephants abound, but the leopard endemic to Sri Lanka eluded us.

Our final 100 kilometers from the peak of the Sinharaja Rainforest down to the fortified old city of Galle on the coast was stunning despite the relentless heat, humidity and headwind. Our arrival to Galle was jarring in that it was the first and only time during the trip that we rode in heavy urban traffic. At one point we were flanked by the crashing waves of the Indian Ocean to our left and motorised mayhem to our right; regardless, once we rolled into the walled portion of Galle and ensconced ourselves in its charm, we reveled in completing a storied 250km bike journey through Sri Lanka, the Pearl of the Indian Ocean.

For me, movement is the companion of joy. This is why dynamic experiences like biking the Florida Keys, the Camino de Santiago, the California coast to Mexico, and this ride through Sri Lanka will always be some of my most treasured travel memories. When I ride a bike, I am the engine. I am the force that sets my bike in motion up and down the contours of a country. So that makes me – a god damn force of nature.


The first of many summits


Rare flat terrain


Train tickets to Nanu Oya


Ecolodge in Sinharaja Rainforest


View of tea plantation from the train


I was not alone in appreciating this experience


Meandering roads


Hairpin turns through rainforest mist warranted caution



Stop, Stay, and Sing

On Saturday, we walked to Vauxhall Gardens for a Berlin-born tradition called Bearpit Karaoke which London is hosting for one weekend only. It begins with a karaoke set up in the middle of a city park. The host coaxes someone to sing karaoke to an audience of zero. The audience builds (one hopes) with this bat call to all lovers of self-compromise as a form of entertainment. The microphone is then handed off to the next person willing to bravely showcase his/her perceived or actual vocal prowess. Note that whether abilities are perceived or legitimate has little relevance in karaoke culture as “the only bad performance is one that is half assed.” And so this social experiment of sorts went.

Would an audience gather to gawk at ordinary people very publicly displaying themselves in a compromised musical state or would they gather to celebrate, support and lift singers up? Would the willingness of strangers to regale us with their vulnerability in song compel others to surrender to the moment as well?

Indeed the masses formed, and one by one people of all stripes, colours and languages requested to sing. Passive viewing morphed into an impromptu convivial, participatory experience.

Performances with varying degrees of tone deafness were delivered with increasing levels of flair and received with equal measures of audience approval. Fists pumped during daring crescendos. Hands clenched dramatically over hearts to emphasize anguish and/or affection. Eyes closed tightly and heads lifted theatrically as singers escaped reality and momentarily actualized childhood dreams of fame and grandeur. All this before an audience of passersby-turned-songbirds and backup dancers.

I’ve been playing with the idea of reinitiating my defunct blog for about a month now. In some people, karaoke incites vitriol or discomfort. For me, momentum. Bearpit Karaoke motivated me to fight and overcome writing inertia. There was something about people’s response to the experience and each other that confirmed my belief that despite the tailspin our world seems to be taking, all is not lost. People are inherently good and find ways to be one. And that when we muster courage to be vulnerable, we allow space for love. Not necessarily upper-case Love, but lower-case love, as in micro acts of community, acceptance and celebrations of ourselves. I cheered wildly for each singer because they did not allow fear to consume them, they looked it straight in the eyes and said, “Gimme the mic. And cue Meatloaf.”

Shout out to Berlin’s Bearpit Karaoke for coming to London and making songbirds of us all.

What’s cooking?

This little piggy went to the market (specifically, Mercado Central and La Vega) then made ceviche, pebre and sopaipillas, empanadas de pino, leche asada and pisco. No big deal. This is all thanks to a seven hour cooking class with Uncorked Chile.

Feast your eyes on this smattering of photos from the markets and our gastronomic delights. I know it seems impossible that I made the dishes below, but the proof is in the pudding (leche asada). Enjoy the slideshow.

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A freestyle rap battle

I found a freestyle rap battle in Bella Vista this afternoon through Tickets were just $2000 pesos ($3 US). A freestyle rap battle is a competition where two people go head to head rapping to a beat that the DJ plays. The raps are off the cuff (freestyle) and the rappers play off what the other one says (it’s like a Socratic seminar with insults and a steady percussive beat). Admittedly and uncomfortably, I didn’t understand everything as the raps were steeped in esoteric Chilean slang. An infinite number of years with Rosetta Stone would still never adequately prepare me to write the subtitles for rap battles in Spanish. I thought about when I watched the subtitled version of “8 Mile” in Guatemala. I derived great pleasure from the Puritan translations. When Eminem bid his posse farewell with a defiant face, gangster reverse peace sign and “¡Peace out, dawgs!” the subtitles simply read “¡Adiós, amigos!

It was uncomfortable not understanding everything, but no words were needed to know when a rapper burned the other one. Or to appreciate the lyrical rhythm of their words. Having said that, it felt good when I slid out the side door to the comfort of quotidian Spanish that I could understand.

Getting off the grid

My parents and I are spending two days in the famed coastal town of Valparaíso. Like yesterday in Santiago, we wandered for hours with no particular itinerary or prior knowledge of where we were going. “Let’s just jump off the metro wherever!” “Hey, where does this long staircase lead to?” This practice should generally not be employed in Latin American capital cities. As a matter of fact, many moons ago, I was backpacking in Venezuela. My gringo friends and I hopped a bus from Caracas destined for the beach. I was 23 and hungry for Romancing the Stone-level adventure. One of us (I’m going to go ahead and guess it was me) suggested we get off the bus somewhere completely off the grid. At a beach town with no mention in our guidebooks. Magellan and the other great seafaring 15th and 16th century explorers of South America didn’t rely on guidebooks (Lonely Flat Planet) so why should we? We stepped off the bus. We walked no more than 7 minutes. Two teens mugged us at gunpoint. The end. Jane Wilder retires.

For pictures from Valpo, click on Fave Fotos above. Here are pictures from our exploration of the Santiago boroughs of Providencia and Las Condes, which are comparable to the Upper East Side of NYC:

walking in las condes

 Las Condes

peanut potpourriPeanut potpourri

metro symbolMetro symbol

festival in the park

Festival scene in the park

Weather delay and high fives

I heard that the School District of Philadelphia had a 2 hour delay today due to the weather. Coincidentally, I also had a weather delay here in Santiago. In Philly, the culprit: hibernal fright. In Santiago: vernal delight. Instead of taking a 10 minute metro ride to Providencia for a meeting with my program coordinator, I took a 3 mile long cut through Parque Forestal. Who rides the metro when you can prancercize through this:

Parque Forestal

It is the first day back from summer vacation (December-February is summer here). College students whizzed by on bikes, eyes glistening with intellectual curiosity and/or last night’s pisco sours. One exuberant student high-fived me as he rode by.

These Chilean college students have a lot to high five about. Over the past few years, they have staged massive protests rebelling against excessive inequalities in education. The popular uprising was violent at times, but also incredibly creative. Soon they will reap the fruits of their labor. Starting in 2016,  college tuition will be 100% free (free!), funded by corporate taxes. After intense debate, the government has also approved the next phase of education reform – bolstering learning conditions by fully funding their public schools. Sound familiar, Philly? So maybe it wasn’t a high five that college student on a bike was giving me. Maybe it was a passing of the torch. Bien hecho. Well done, Chile.

Not in Chile for the chili

This is a true story.

Student: Why are you going to Chile again?

Me: Because I heard they have the best chili, obviously.

Student: Oh, that makes seeeense.

And scene. And I lose my job for being a jerk.

That’s not actually why I’m here. Chile is home to one of the most vibrant street art scenes in South America and is experiencing a golden age of creativity. I’m here collaborating with graffiti artists, muralists and educators and exploring ways to use street art as a vehicle for teaching language and elevating cultural literacy. My final project will be a collection of teaching resources that we design for world language educators. I’ll be looking for teachers to beta test the lessons, so stay tuned if you’re a teacher. If you’re not a teacher, is it because you were a terrible student? Go home and think about what you did.

Feet on the ground

New Inti Castro mural at Bellas Artes metro stop

New Inti Castro mural at Bellas Artes metro stop

From Cerro Santa Lucia photo excursion

From Cerro Santa Lucia photo excursion

Day 1: Arrival to Santiago (yesterday)

During the 8 hour 58 minute flight from Houston to Santiago, I managed to watch two episodes of “New Girl”, start reading a book and sleep for about 8 hours (right through all the meals). I woke up to the announcement about completing our customs forms. This reminded me about the 3 illicit mandarins in my bag that I meant to consume before succumbing to flight narcolepsy. I ate the contraband then shoved the peels/pests in the blanket bag.

It was a 20 minute, 19000 Chilean pesos ($32) taxi ride to my crib at Monjitas 744 right downtown. My driver loved listening to power ballads.  He loved them so much that he ignored me the whole time which spared me the typical line of questioning that taxi drivers in Latin America usually subject me to:

Driver: Where are you from?

Me: Philadelphia.

Driver: But where is your family from?

Me: The Philippines.

Driver: Do you speak Chinese?


My airbnb apartment is centrally located just blocks from a new Inti Castro mural, the Plaza de Armas, multiple ATM’s that reject my card, Museo Bellas Artes and Cerro Santa Lucia. I participated in a local photography group’s shoot on Cerro Santa Lucia on my first night. They were impressed that I attended an event that began 6 hours after I stepped foot in Chile (pshhh). I used my Sony a6000 for the first time and shot several mediocre pictures and one really good one of my lens cap.

First impressions:

– Chile feels significantly more European than Latin American (the people, the ease of everything, the smells).

– It’s literally 64 degrees warmer than it is in Philly.

– Chilean Spanish sounds funny to my ears.

– There are very few stray dogs (unlike the roving packs of street dogs that terrorized me in Guatemala and held nightly barking competitions in front of my bedroom window).

– Peruvian and sushi restaurants abound.

– The malls are mad houses even on Friday afternoons. Why?! They don’t even have Cinnabon here. Not that I eat Cinnabons. Especially not the outside Cinnabon spirals anyway.