Friday, August 22, 2014

Ice Buckets and Rocket Fire

I wasn't particularly inclined to write about the time I spent in Israel. I flew in during a period of heightened tensions, during which Hamas was firing rockets into southern and central Israel and Israel was retaliating with airstrikes on Gaza. The ground operation in Gaza began a few days into my stay.

Spending time in a nation at war was an incredibly impactful and memorable experience...but I didn't feel it was my place to write about them. Unlike my cousins living in central Israel, I don't have young children who need to run for cover during the red alerts. Unlike many of my friends, I didn't know any soldiers who lost limbs in the war. I didn't need to go to any of my friends' funerals during my visit. And unlike everyone I visited there, I was scheduled to leave and continue on to destinations with missile-free airspace. I have a host of personal and political opinions surrounding my visit, but I was just passing through. I don't think my sentiments carry the same weight as those of my friends and family who are continuing their daily lives living under fire. So I don't feel it's my place to write about them here.

But there's one thing I do want to write about, and that's ALS. Israel was a late addition to my itinerary, but I was grateful to add it because it gave me an opportunity to visit a cousin of mine who was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's Disease back in 2011. I spoke with my cousin's wife, Rachel, about all of the changes that they've had to make since the diagnosis. She talked with me about the process of attaining a motorized wheelchair, a new accessible van, and installing a ramp. (Their building doesn't have a lift) The government usually pays for or reimburses for these services, but while they work with the bureaucracy, the family still had to find crafty ways to come up with the large cash outlays that are needed to pay for the accommodations.

My cousin David taught Judaic studies for many years, a subject he was very passionate about. He was still teaching up until a few months before I came. When it was too much of a hassle to leave the house, students would come to his home and he would give seminars from his apartment. He was still very active until recently, but now he's not speaking and he communicates with a computer and a sensor attached to his nose. He also gets uncomfortable quickly and uses the computer to call to family members or aids to help him shift position. (Think of a Fur Elise ringtone playing every 3 minutes, all day) Because there's no lift in his building, David can't make it to shelter during code red alerts, so a family member or aid stays with him and they hope for the best.

I was happy to see the ALS ice bucket challenge go viral in the days after my return to the US. I, like many others, was concerned that many of the people who took the challenge (or even donated) didn't know much about the disease or the way it affects ALS patients and their families. I hope this short post can help teach a little more about what people with ALS and their families experience on a daily basis.

My brother challenged me earlier this week and even though I feel financially exhausted after this trip, I didn't think twice about donating to this cause. My ice maker is also broken, so if anybody wants to have me over and help me dump a bucket of ice water over my head, let me know!

Despite the tension, I thoroughly enjoyed my stay in Israel and hope that the next visit takes place during a more peaceful time. I finally made it to Stockholm about 6 days behind schedule. That's a story for another post.

You can learn more about ALS and donate here.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Into Africa

A friend of mine from university is an international student from Cape Town and though she is working in New York over the summer, her mother was there to greet me at the airport. They treated me to a meal of lamb chops, quinoa salad, and roasted vegetables before sending me to my host, an aunt of theirs who lives in a neighborhood on the Atlantic called Sea Point.

I loved Cape Town. I loved that I could see the mountains from every part of the city, I loved being within driving distance of two oceans, and I loved that I could watch paragliders fly off the Lion's Head from the front lot of my building. I may have also eaten my way through Cape Town. The grocery stores had excellent pastries and I took advantage of the delicious lamb and curries available in the city.

One highlight was the opportunity to tour a wheelchair factory and speak with mechanical engineers who design durable and inexpensive equipment. Cape Town is not the most accessible city and conditions are all the worse for the residents of Cape Town's shantytowns, or townships. Moreover, Cape Town reminded me of the influence a parent's education has on the healthcare that his or her children will receive. Parents with more medical knowledge are often slow at, or do a poor job of finding good healthcare for children with disabilities. For example, in Brazil I spoke with rehabilitation centers that had to teach children to communicate for the first time at 4 or 5. The rehabilitation center I spoke to in South Africa encountered children who didn't learn to communicate until they were several years older, often because parents did not understand that the children with disabilities were ever capable of communicating.

Despite the struggles, I found South Africa to be a beautiful and fascinating county that I would love to return to. Attached are some photos from a safari I took in a game park outside of Cape Town, thanks to an awesome birthday present from my parents!

Monday, July 21, 2014


I'm back after some wifi deprivation in South Africa. After Singapore I headed to Kuala Lumpur on the infamous Malaysia Airlines.

I made it off the plane in one piece.

But Malaysia was my biggest culture shock to date. I'd venture to say that most streets in Kuala Lumpur smell like curry and durian, a spiky fruit that is supposed to have a delicious flavor but a putrid smell. (Durian are forbidden in public transportation and many buildings) It was also my first time in a Muslim country, and I started to feel like my light skin and lack of hijab made me stick out like a sore thumb.

Coincidentally, I was right near the Malaysian Association for the Blind, so I was able to see many people with disabilities out and about in my neighborhood. The streets are full of high stairs, broken walkways, and steep holes, but I was surprised by how well the locals were able to navigate the streets. My favorite organizational visit was at a center that provides wheelchair repairs, employment training, and transportation, among other services. The array of services were impressive, but I was more impressed by the energy among the employees. They had so much to tell me throughout the tour and interview that I had trouble keeping up with them. As the taxi pulled away, I caught a glimpse of them laughing and zooming around in their wheelchairs in the front yard.

The circumnavigation is always an adventure, but I hardly expected that it would take me to a war zone. I'm writing from Tel Aviv, which has been under fire for some time now. The streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem have been surprisingly empty because of the number of soldiers deployed and the number of citizens who choose not to leave their homes unnecessarily. It's not the experience I expected, but it's raw and it's real. I'll write more about Israel and South Africa in coming posts.

In the meantime, here are some pictures from a highlight of Malaysia, the famous Batu Caves.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Deeper Into the Unknown

And by "the unknown" I mean Malaysia.

Barefoot Hospitality

I'm getting ready to leave Singapore. What an interesting city! It's a clean, modern, and developed city with a unique blend of Eastern and Western culture. Eating and shopping are the national pastimes and wearing shoes inside the home is a taboo.

The research here has been quite interesting as well. This is one country that could really benefit from an educational campaign about disabilities. There's a general lack of awareness about the needs of PWDs. One employee of a disabled persons organization mentioned she doesn't think the locals understand that wheelchair users can't use the escalator, which leads to a lack of courtesy, such as people refusing to make room for wheelchair users in lifts.

The truth is that no matter how accommodating legal systems or public spaces are towards people with disabilities, no one can experience their full effects without some public cooperation. A wide lift is no good if people won't let a person in a wheelchair in and an accessible bathroom stall is no good if it's used as a storage room. (A real problem)

On another note, I recommend anyone reading this invite themselves over to my apartment in future years, because all of this travelling has made me want to be a better hostess. I have a lovely host family here that was supposed to have me for a weekend and ended up inviting me to stay for the rest of the trip. Now my standards for hosting are set. If you want meals and rides and wifi and a comfortable bed my place is going to be the place to be.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Moving On

Australia has been beautiful and I will have to come back here to see more of it. The next leg begins today!

Monday, June 16, 2014

As Pro-Colonialist as I'm Going to Get

The flight to Australia...what a whammy. I went from Buenos Aires to Sao Paulo, Sao Paulo to Santiago, got delayed in Santiago, flew from Santiago to Auckland, got off the plane, went through security, and then re-boarded to continue to Sydney. Safe to say, after about 36 hours in transit I feel like I can handle anything else the traveling life throws at me.

One of the books I took on the trip was about Captain Cook's explorations, and the trip down here gave me even more appreciation for his accomplishments. It was an agonizing day and a half in transit and when I landed and heard the English language again, it made me realize how powerful the British Empire must have been to sail to and set up a colony all the way down here. It also made me appreciate what it meant for the American Colonists to overthrow such a powerful government.

On my first full day here I scheduled an interview about four hours after I landed. That's not something I would do ever again. The professor I spoke with was incredibly compassionate for my jetlag, but needless to say, she didn't see me at my best. I headed to Bondi Beach afterwards, bought a delicious mini vegetable pizza, and ate it while watching the waves. I then headed sluggishly back to the hostel.

On my first non-jetlagged day I headed to the harbour to see the opera house, the Harbour Bay Bridge, and the ever-charming Taronga Zoo. They were all amazing sights, and I recommend everyone see them. But I have to say, the zoo caught me off guard. It was way cool. My favorite section was the Australian walkabout where I got to see some of the best local animals including kangaroos, koalas, and venomous snakes. And after staring at the inside of a cabin for the better part of two days, it was rather nice to be in open air and walk along the snake paths and listen to singing birds instead of the humming of the engines.

 Sydney is a much more accessible city than Buenos Aires or Rio, though it's not without its faults. I'm impressed by the wide sidewalks, the curb cuts, and the sound indicators at the intersections. If you're operating a tram (stroller) or wheelchair, I would advise against using the subway, unless you're the kind of person who gets a thrill out of riding over the massive gap between the train and the platform.

I finished my last interview today with Every Australian Counts, an amazing campaign that was extremely successful in raising awareness over disability related issues and pushing for new legislation. They modeled many of their strategies from the Obama campaign. Though they had a limited budget, they were diligent about polling and subjecting their campaign materials to market research, a technique which appears to have been effective. There was also something special about meeting a small group of people who brought about big change. After learning that less than 10 people were able to push the government to triple the amount of money it would spend on people with disabilities, my summer feels pretty unproductive.

I'm brainstorming a way to spend my last full day here before heading to Singapore. As of now I'm leaning towards a beach walk and a return to Bondi to buy another schnitzel burger. I don't think there was anything particularly Australian about it...but damn, it was good.