Engineers Without Borders Trip – Peru 2023

On October 14, 2023 I began the 5-hour descent from the Peruvian high jungle of Villa Rica (a small town known for coffee production and coffee tourism) to the low jungle town of Iscosazín to begin work on our Engineers Without Borders (EWB) water project with the indigenous community of Shiringamazú. 

Road to Shiringamazú

It was a beautiful drive, especially because the road had been serviced earlier in the year. My past three trips to the community (since 2018), I had always arrived feeling like a maraca after a Cuban music festival. This trip was much smoother!

…Except that the car broke down about 40 minutes before arriving. In the dark. In the middle of the jungle. Where there wasn’t cell phone service. After about 15 minutes, a truck passed by and was kind enough to give us a ride and even tow the car the rest of the way in!

Thanks to the kind people in this truck, we were only stranded for less than an hour.

And so I arrived, cognizant of the foreshadowing of all the twists and turns that would probably lie ahead, (not uncommon in any engineering and construction project – especially an international one – and especially in a rural area, deep in the jungle).

I barely had time to thank my lucky stars that I had made it safely, and the next morning I was meeting with our NGO partner and our contractor to review our plans… then driving an hour to conduct a site inspection/assessment… and then detouring to a recently installed well system about 40 minutes away (Chuchurrus) – all while getting caught in the first rainstorm of rainy season!

Caught in the First Rain of the Rainy Season

The site inspection had brought another surprise, making me grateful we packed it in before we met with the community. After hacking our way through the jungle to the spring site, we realized that our plan to capture spring water from this site would not be feasible. Our team had hoped to be able to do a spring capture here after having reviewed more than 10 different possible approaches to bring water to the community. This meant that we would now need to pivot to focusing on the other part of our design and another one of our options: a hand-dug well.

We heard loud claps of thunder as we hiked over to inspect the site we planned for the well and to consider how we would pivot. There was a nearby stream, and we could potentially capture this surface water. However, the treatment system would require maintenance that would be challenging for an already under-resourced community. Rain drops began to fall, and as we were hiking back to the car, the sky opened up and poured on us, as if teasing us about the conundrum of this site: plentiful rainwater during the rainy season but no source of water sufficient to supply the community through the dry season.

Julia and her two kids fetch water from an almost-dry stream in the dry season.

If you’ve been on an EWB trip, you know that the days are packed full – both physically and intellectually challenging, as we travel to an environment we aren’t used to, where we design and implement a technically challenging project – all in the context of a culture and language that we don’t typically work in. And this trip was already checking all of those boxes!

The next day was one of the most important days of any EWB trip – we met with the community leaders. These meetings are especially important because of the nature of EWB work: there is no cell service or internet in the community, so these meetings are our primary communication with the community. That’s right – for most of the year, while we are in the US raising funds and doing technical work for the project, the community doesn’t see us and probably thinks we forgot about them, like they say many NGOs have done in the past. 

In this meeting, there was a mix of new leaders and those from the previous year, so it was important to explain who we are and what we were doing. As the meeting went on, some people from the community began to gather around and listen in. With the help of our NGO partner, we explained that we were volunteers, working on this project outside of our normal work and family commitments and that we even have to raise the funds on our own to pay for the project.

That incited multiple leaders (and even some community members) to give moving speeches about the importance of water, especially for the children in the community. They offered to help in any way they could and urged the leaders and other community members to do all they could to help make the water project a success. The community leader pledged to feed and house the workers for free and provide and transport aggregate material to the site for the duration of the project.

Two community members that live in the neighboring sector were so moved that they congratulated us for the work we were doing and offered to help us during the whole week, even though they would not directly benefit from the water system since they live in the neighboring sector. For the rest of the week, they became my core surveying team. 

Survey Team: Mario and Alex and our NGO partner, Juan

After returning to town to use internet to consult the EWB team through photos, videos, and whatsapp conversations, we decided to move forward with the hand-dug well and determine if the well could provide enough water to meet the community’s needs. If it didn’t, we could consider other options, such as using the well as a pumping chamber for treated surface water from the stream, digging a well near the river and pumping long distance, or finding a drilling rig that could tap a deep aquifer.

While the contractor led a team of workers to prepare the well site and begin digging, I began the land survey, first with a volunteer, Carlos, and later with Alex and Mario surveying along the road where the water mains will run.

Clearing the well site and starting the well.

Despite the extreme heat from the sun beating down on us all day long, our team maintained good spirits and made good progress. Mario stopped by tiendas (community stores) we passed and always showed up with a donated bottle of water to keep us hydrated. A few people even came out of their houses with drinks for us or invited us in to drink from coconuts. 

Carlos and his family invited us in and gave us coconuts to drink.

Since the community had offered to provide food and housing for the workers, we ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner at the “comedor,” a communal restaurant that was an outdoor eating area with a small kitchen area where two women prepared food. Meals were light and consisted mostly of fish (sometimes chicken) – the main protein of the area – and rice. 

The “comedor” where we ate all our meals during the week and found shelter from the heat.
From left to right: Alex, Benamin, Juan, Mario, Hugo, Daniel, Elmer, me.

During the week I was able to speak with a couple people about their life without tap water. Dry season is really hard for everyone because they have to go long distances to fetch water, and even then the water sources are contaminated. Carlos told me, “We really suffer for water in the dry season, especially this summer. The water we do have is from spring-fed ponds, but it is contaminated because the animals are there in the ponds when we go get our water – sometimes ducks, chickens – and this affects our health, the health of the whole community.”

I was quite sad to leave the community after we had all worked so hard together and enjoyed each others’ company. Our contractor remained in the community and hired two locals to help with the hand-digging of the well. After about a month and a half, the team encountered an impassable layer of rock, and we had to bring this phase of the digging to a pause. While we wait for the rainy season to pass, we are working hard to raise funds and looking for a company in Peru with a drilling rig that can help us complete well construction after the rainy season in 2024. 

Please donate if you can, and please let us know if your company or a business you know would be interested in supporting the community of Shiringamazu! For more information and history about the project, see our EWB Peru Project webpage.

I love Parks!

I drive across the country a lot these days, visiting family and friends and doing a little work travel too. When I’m not spending the night with friends or family, I always find a state park where I can camp. In the last two years I’ve camped at state parks in Texas, Louisiana, Kansas, and West Virginia, and every one has been a great experience. (Utah was a different experience because there’s so much BLM land, you don’t even have to find a park, just a piece of BLM land where you can set up camp!)

Every now and then it really hits me (and today was one of those days) – not only how awesome it is that we even have state (and national) parks to visit, but how great it is that people help maintain them and keep them safe, AND even help foster the little communities that pop up because of them. (If you’ve seen Nomadland you might have gotten a glimpse of how temporary/mobile communities pop up and people look out for each other even though they’ve just met).

The community that I’ve felt at state parks is great – sometimes built by the staff, locals, volunteers, long-time campers, or just by the people passing through, enjoying their time in nature. It’s experiences like these that have reinforced over and over again for me that most people are decent people and even would lend others a hand – and some people even go out of their way to help out strangers and make this world a better place for all of us.

For example, there’s the biology teacher and mountain biker who frequents Palo Duro Canyon State Park and keeps the mountain bike trails clean and safe – in his free time. Even when the park hired a company to do it, he would still go out and help. My encounter with him was an auspicious one.

I was hiking on a windy trail when a mountain biker came around the bend, hopping off her bike, clearly startled and breathing hard. I asked her if everything was ok, and she said that she had just ridden over a rattlesnake! As she was telling me this, another mountain biker pulled up behind us. While she and I pulled out our cameras and carefully rounded the bend to get a glimpse of the snake (and video proof), the other guy dismounted and started walking around looking for a stick. Afraid for the guy’s safety and feeling like that stick was WAY too short, I raised my concerns. He responded saying, “I’m a herpetologist.” As my brain registered his words, I couldn’t believe it. The day that I encounter a rattlesnake on a trail, I also happen to encounter a herpetologist at the same time!??

“You said herpetologist? Like someone who studies snakes?” I said in disbelief. “…and other reptiles and amphibians,” he responded. I approached him cautiously while he slowly and gently prodded the snake so it would move off the trail. Once the snake was hidden in the bushes (but still rattling up a storm in fear, the poor thing!), I proceeded to ask a million questions. (He was also a biology teacher and in grad school had actually milked snakes in a lab and knew how to tell male from female! It would take whole separate blog to share all the cool things I learned about snakes that day.

But instead, I want to tell you about my most recent encounter with another good-hearted state park volunteer, this time in the swamps of Louisiana.

This was my third time at this park, and I have always loved it. As you can imagine, it is extremely humid (think 100% humidity at night) and buggy in the summer – it is a swamp afterall. But it’s a quiet spot, and the night sounds of the swamp animals* sing me to sleep. (*Bugs and frogs? I don’t actually know what is in the swamp making those sounds, but I love the music!)

Since I had trouble reserving a site online I planned to pay upon leaving just like I had done the last two times. The website indicated that none of the sites were reserved so I should be able to have my pick of campsites!

I arrived past dark and there was not a single other person in the tent camping loop! I love a quiet camping spot, having my choice of sites, not being worried about disturbing anyone else, and enjoying those nature sounds without having to hear generators or car doors or other pesky human sounds. I quickly set up my tent and was surprised that the bugs weren’t quite as bad as I had expected.

But then when I tried to close my tent window, the zipper broke. Now I couldn’t close my tent window/door to keep the bugs out. As much as I’d love to just sleep with my tent open, I didn’t want to be a feast or an amusement park for the bugs that night.

Then I remembered that I had seen these yurts interspersed in the campsite. Once before I had peeked inside one of them and they had a bed and even a toilet! GLAMPING in the swamp. I had a plan B.

I walked over to the closest yurt, bent down to unzip it, and found it locked up tight. Dang. I could sleep under the stars in long sleeves and just hope not to be eaten by mosquitos. I could sleep in my car and sweat all night.


I could walk around to all the yurts and see if one happened to unlocked.

I checked them all, one by one, and I was about to give up when I found one open! Another auspicious camping day for me! I threw my sleeping bag on top of the bed and slept great!

In the morning two guys parked a noisy golf cart by my campsite as I was eating breakfast. “Good morning!” I greeted them. Their response was a little delayed and hesitant. Then the young guy asked if I had reserved the yurt. I explained that I hadn’t reserved it but planned to pay on my out of the park like I had done the past two times. I told him about my tent zipper malfunction and my unexpected stay in the yurt instead of my tent.

He got kind of agitated and began explaining that the yurts didn’t actually belong to the park but to a private company and that I had to reserve it online -and that since I hadn’t reserved it “I better leave right now”. I calmly reassured him that I was about to leave and that I was happy to pay for my unexpected stay. But that didn’t seem to calm him down, and he said gruffly that I better call and pay AND he added, “I’m going to make the circle and you had better not be here when come back around.”

I wasn’t used to running into people so stressed out at campsites, but I was feeling so peaceful that I just calmly moved myself over to a regular campsite to finish my breakfast and have my morning yoga. Afterwards, I heard the golf cart pull up again, but this time with only the older man and not the young, agitated guy.

“Hey there!” I greeted him again. “Hi! I just wanted to apologize about interaction earlier,” he said. “I don’t like the way he spoke to you. And I don’t want that to be a reflection on the park. He’s not with the park; he’s with a company in New York. We’re not like that here. You’re on a park site now, and you just take your time and enjoy yourself,” he added.

Now that just warmed my heart! I couldn’t believe this guy took time to come try to make me feel welcome! This was the kind of people I was used to encountering at parks! A skinny older man with long grey hair, he was a retired firefighter and he explained that he was the campsite host. I don’t know much about campsite hosts, but I have seen them in the parks and I understand that they are park visitors that stay for a while and kind of keep an eye on things.

He explained how he got to be camp host. When he retired in 2019 he and his wife bought a camper and did some traveling. They had stayed at this state park and really like it and were asked to be campsite hosts. They loved it so much they had been staying here for the last 4 months, even though they live just 14 miles down the road in a nice house on a few acres!

He commented on how he really loves the community – he meets so many people, even from other countries! (He had recently met folks from Germany, and others from Sweden.) As he headed off on his golf cart, I was left with such an appreciation for our parks and for all the volunteers, visitors, and staff who make them a welcoming place for whoever comes through.

The Newest Apartment Amenity? Solar PV

Today I found myself on the roof of an apartment building, overlooking the downtown Houston cityscape.

As you can see, this is not just any apartment building (though it would appear so from street level).

The residents of this apartment complex get a unique amenity that you don’t typically see when apartment shopping. They also can rent solar PV and battery backup that is already installed as part of the building.

That means that when the power goes out, their power doesn’t – their apartments are powered by batteries that were charged with energy from the solar panels mounted on their roof.

Many homeowners install solar PV on their roof, either for lower electric bills, because it is a good investment that pays back over time (even better than retirement funds in some cases), or because they want to contribute to fighting climate change.

Some homeowners pay for the system and own it, while others rent their roof to a utility who installs, owns, and maintains the system.

Some people even add battery back-up to their solar PV systems and make sure they have power even if the grid goes down.

But this is the first time I have seen renters – especially apartment dwellers – have the ability to take advantage of the benefits of solar PV and also energy resilience.

In fact, this is a kind of pilot project done by PearlX (based out of Virginia) and led by Joey Romano, who developed the building in 2010, with an initial row of solar to offset some of the electricity cost. Then, in 2022 he worked with PearlX (and the residents) to expand the system and add battery back-up.

This is a unique approach to advancing clean energy and making it accessible to more people – not just homeowners but those who rent too. 

Since the power outages during the great Texas freeze of 2021, many Texans would be willing to pay extra to ensure have power during a grid outage. That isn’t usually an option for apartment dwellers, but maybe this project can help pave the way for renters to be able to contribute to fighting climate change and have more reliable power.

Big City Diversity

I have said a few times about Houston that I love the diversity here. 

(Side note: I make a real effort to identify the things I like about Houston. So far the running list of things I love: 

  1. My aunt who lives here (and bonus: her neighbor friends!) 
  2. Great bird watching. (Houston is smack in the middle of the migration path so the bird diversity in fall and spring is spectacular – it is one of the best spots in the US for bird watchers.)
  3. Discovering the parks (like the Arboretum and Brazos Bend)! 
  4. The beach is just an hour away. (Even if it’s not the most beautiful beach you’ve ever seen, it is still refreshing to the soul).
  5. From here it is only a 3-hour drive to visit my parents and hometown friends.


  1. The diversity of people that live here

That’s about it. But after a day of 104-degree F heat index, I am extremely impressed with my ability to be so positive about H-town!)

So, back to my point… I do love the diversity of people (and birds) here. 

I don’t think racial diversity was something I really noticed as much… until I experienced being the minority in a less diverse place. Standing out all the time, every time, even when you least expect it was new for me when I served in the Peace Corps. Even after 3 years, the assumptions people made about me based on my different appearance sometimes caught me off guard.*

When I traveled from my Peace Corps site and suddenly found myself immersed in greater racial diversity I was surprised to observe that I felt more at ease, more comfortable. (Maybe I felt I could blend in more? Maybe there was an assumption that people used to seeing a lot of people that looked different from them would be more open-minded?)

However, even in “diverse cities”, there is still segregation. (See title photo.) In someone’s daily life they may rarely have meaningful encounters with people of different ethnicities, races, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, gender identity, or different political ideals. As humans we naturally tend to seek people similar to us and so we naturally end up with somewhat segregated neighborhoods, friend circles, cultural events, and even micro economies. It can actually take effort to step out of our “bubble”.

My experience in Houston has been a little of both – I have seen a very segregated diversity (like a restaurant with all white clientele and the only people of color were employees), but I have also experienced deeper diversity in some places – like at the grocery store, when visiting the arboretum and other parks, at Miller Outdoor Theater’s summer concerts, and at some popular, low-key restaurants.

But the “winner-takes-all” diversity experience (so far?) was during my surgery at a major hospital.**

The guy who checked me in was a young, white man, and the cashier woman who took (a large chunk of) my money was a friendly Latina woman who joked around with me. She left me in the hands of a lovely Mexican woman who tested me to see if my Spanish was fluent and taught me to say anesthesiologist in Spanish. (Wow – but she didn’t teach me to spell it – thanks to Word for helping with that.) 

I then met my nurse, a young, white American female who somehow managed to be friendly and humorous despite being at the end of her long shift after having been called in last night. She handed me off to the young, black American woman nurse, who then left me to the east African women (one older and one younger than me) who made sure I saw all the right doctors before heading into surgery.

Meanwhile, my surgeon showed up – a young Persian woman who grew up in Iran but has lived in Houston since she was 17. And then finally my anesthesiology team came in – two Asian men: a young, witty and mildly cocky MD and an older the nurse. 

When I awoke from the surgery, a kind, no-nonsense, older woman came and helped me use the restroom as I struggled to balance while the anesthesia was still wearing off and I had a surgical shoe on my freshly operated foot. (I was too groggy to notice or remember much else about her, as I was focusing on not toppling over.)

The discharge nurse was a young south Indian man who plays cricket. He feels right at home in Houston’s heat and humidity, which isn’t so different from his hometown.

I never would have guessed that just going into an outpatient surgery I would have the opportunity to travel around the world! Or at least get such a great peek into Houston’s diversity. I really would like to throw a party for my whole hospital medical team. First to thank them for being so great, but really to hear more about their varied experiences and backgrounds…THAT would be a trip around the world.

Until I figure out how to make that happen, I am so glad I had the surprise opportunity to peek into this melting pot and so thankful for the friendly exchanges and mini-conversations we had, not to mention the excellent care they each gave me! 

How can/did you step out of your bubble today? (Without going to the hospital, please.)


Famous Footnotes

*Being a racial minority and being white is still a different experience than being a racial minority and being darker skinned. The assumptions people made about me were different than those made about my dark-skinned friends. For example, it was often assumed that I had more money, wealth, or resources or was more knowledgeable about certain things. On the other hand, there were also assumptions that I didn’t speak the language, that I was less knowledgeable, and that I was gullible… all depending on the person’s biases and experiences.

**Don’t worry, it was a minor surgery.

**I couldn’t attend Pride due to my surgery so I missed out on what I’m sure is the real “winner-takes-all” diversity experience in Houston. Next year.

***Photo is from

Texas Snowmageddon

I LOVE the snow. But I grew up in south Texas where snow is something from the movies but not something that actually happens in real life. Except that ONE TIME when I was two years old. But I wouldn’t see snow again until I moved to Nashville, TN for college. (I did not make it to classes that day it snowed because I was busy studying the physics of sledding.) Then I got to know REAL snow in DC where I was lucky enough to live through two snowmageddons of more than a foot of snow!

But never in my life would I have dreamed that I would live through a snowmageddon (also known as “snowpocalypse”) in my childhood home in south Texas. As fate would have it, I was visiting my parents when the 2021 Texas snowpocalypse hit.

To wake up and see those snowflakes falling…and falling…and continue falling throughout the day, accumulating multiple inches of white fluff across the landscape of my childhood home (where we often wore shorts at Christmas and New Years celebrations), was surreal to say the least. As if fulfilling a childhood dream, I played in the snow, made a snow angel, a snow person, and a snow caterpillar.

It was all fun and games until the electricity went out. And stayed out. Who am I kidding – for me it was still fun and games because I love a good primitive living challenge. We didn’t have hot water at first, so I heated water over the stove and took a bucket bath. (Later, when we got spurts of 5-minutes of electricity, we used a blow dryer to warm the frozen pipes coming from the hot water heater until we had hot water again.)

We were lucky; we still had running water AND we had a gas stove that kept the house from getting too cold. Our neighbor’s house got down to 50°F for multiple days.

Running in the snow on a city trail I saw three different groups of people gathering wood to start a fire outside their house or apartment to stay warm.

An elderly neighbor that had no water or electricity tried to book a hotel, but hotels (that had been struggling because of the pandemic’s hit on tourism) were suddenly booked full, as locals searched for shelter for a few days.

My friend and her family collected snow and icicles to boil for water because she didn’t have running water for multiple days, like many of my friends (and millions of people across Texas).

Photo courtesy of Ashley Haley

A few days later we got our power back. But another friend who had had power the whole time, suddenly lost power. Her sister and niece and nephew had been crowded into her small apartment after they had lost power, but suddenly my friend was migrating to their house.

After three days without consistent power and nearly a week of icy roads, the temperatures rose back up above freezing, and with the sun shining brightly, I found myself wearing a t-shirt. The roads cleared up, and exactly one week after the first snowflake had fallen, my snow friend was long gone, and there was no sign on the ground that the Texas snowmageddon-snowpocalypse had ever happened. It was just another warm, sunny, “winter” day in south Texas.

Except for the people like my aunt, whose pipes had frozen, then cracked, and who now had water damage in their ceilings and walls. For a while she was collecting water from her neighbors. After an emergency fix, she was able to collect water from her outdoor water hose to wash dishes and flush the toilet. Two weeks later, she is still waiting in line for the contractors to fix the damage to her house – which is not so surprising, considering that billions of dollars of property damage resulted from frozen pipes and lost power across Texas.

And then there are the loved ones of the more than 50 people who died.1

But there is a silver lining. A few people have profited greatly because of the skyrocketing gas and power prices during the snowpocalypse. While some energy and utility companies and traders lost millions of dollars due to excessive energy prices, others made millions.2

Those profits are now going to help those who suffered, and to prevent something like this from happening again.

Just kidding.

That’s what SHOULD happen. That’s even what COULD happen. But that is not what IS happening

Instead, we are witnessing a grand market failure and an even bigger failure in governance.

The market failure
In an ideal market, you can pay to receive a high quality and affordable product or service and the service provider makes a profit. If the provider fails to provide what was agreed upon, you receive a discount or some kind of compensation.

My mom pays her utility bills on time every month, and she is promised reliable power and water. In February, she did not have power for more than 50 hours, and yet, she will not be receiving any kind of discount or compensation for the lack of service. Instead, her utility bills will COST MORE over the next decade, and she, (along with millions of other Texan customers) will be paying off a debt accumulated by many utilities during the storm, due to the excessive surge in gas and electricity prices.

Let that sink in for a minute. The customers who suffered the consequences of the power failure will be paying for it, rather than receiving compensation for the lack of service.

In an ideal market situation, you could require the provider to compensate you for not holding up their end of the bargain. And, you could also change to a more reliable provider. But my mom (and the millions of Texan power consumers) do not have that option here – a clear indication that the market is not working as intended.

Fun Fact: Texas law actually prohibits charging excessive prices during an emergency, (and the governor had called a state of emergency before the storm.) But that did not stop Texas regulators from allowing electricity prices to rise nearly 3,500% their normal, while gas prices rose 6,000% to 16,000%! (I can’t even wrap my head around that number.)2b

And yet, the most powerful regulators and politicians in Texas are defending the market as is, resisting making any corrections or changes so that it could work better for customers.

The now-resigned Public Utilities Commission (PUC) chairman vowed to protect the billions of dollars made by investors on the energy market during the artificially high price hikes, rather than defending plans to protect customers.2c Most of the leading politicians seem to have forgotten the original purpose of the market – to provide reliable and affordable energy to millions of end users.

This is a serious…

Governance Failure
Some politicians are actually saying that there was not a market failure and that there is no reason to correct the market with appropriate regulations.  They argue that the high prices during an emergency are an incentive for utilities to prepare for extreme weather.

Fact Check: Texas had a similar power crisis caused by extreme weather in 2011, and regulators spent the next 3 years doing analyses and drafting reports on how to prevent it in the future. However, utilities still were not prepared, ten years later. Those charged with ensuring the grid was reliable never did REQUIRE utilities to comply,3 and we have now seen the outcome of recommending but not requiring measures crucial for energy reliability.

  • More than 50 people died because of the February outages this year.1
  • Billions of dollars in property damage in Texas (as costly as some of the worst hurricanes in recent history)1b
  • Millions of customers suffered countless financial and emotional burdens – most that will never be known or even considered by regulators, much less compensated. (As mentioned above, customers will not only NOT be compensated, they will actually pay MORE over the next few years.)
  • Many energy and utility companies will likely file for bankruptcy or go out of business because of the debts accumulated during the storm.2

Yet, instead of defending Texan customers, those responsible for governing stand committed to defending the market that failed those customers.

I have NOT heard any regulators or lawmakers say, “We will make sure customers are compensated for their losses and for the lack of reliability that we were responsible for ensuring.”

Instead, when presented an opportunity the help customers they have said, “government intervention into the free market… would have major consequences for consumers…” (Texas Speaker of the House). He seems blind to the “major consequences” that Texas consumers just experienced. Not to mention the consequences that they will continue to experience, as they pay off this debt that they never signed up for. (Not only did we not sign up for it, out taxpayer dollars go to funding lawmakers and regulators who are responsible for ensuring reliability of the grid – ensuring this does not happen. They failed and they are passing the buck onto us.)

Granted, the statement above comes from the representative from Beaumont, an area not affected by the outages. Yet he is in control of the Texas House, and he prevented lawmakers from passing a bill that would recoup $4.1 billion in excessive charges for customers.4

I have yet to see any argument of merit that justifies Texas leaders’ actions (or inactions, as the case may be). The loudest arguments I’ve heard so far indicate a lack of understanding in economic theory compared to economic reality, as well as an outright bias towards investors and the stock market over customers who suffered the consequences of the market failure.

This disaster is a clear example of why “protecting the free market from government intervention” is simply an excuse for keeping rules that protect investors instead of customers.6 Yet those in power seem blind to customer interests, which indicates a clear failure in democratic governance – the interests of the people are not being well-represented in the important decisions being made.

The Hope…Texans

Paying for the Storm

Since legislators did not help protect customers’ financial stake, one last chance for hope might be in the judicial system. Many utilities will likely be filing for bankruptcy, and some are suing ERCOT and the gas companies that price gouged during an emergency.2b The lawyers and the judges hearing those cases could (and should) enforce the Texas law and settle on a reasonable price during the emergency. Lowering the utilities’ debt would protect Texas customers from bearing such a high cost of this storm (as well as demonstrating that rule of law still functions in Texas).

Preventing Future Catastrophes – it’s up to Texans

As for Texas legislators and regulators – they have missed their first chance to reduce the financial impact on customers, but they still have a chance to prevent (or minimize) future catastrophes by putting appropriate regulations in place, and making sure that customer interests are better represented in the market. Unfortunately, the bills they have proposed so far are not any stronger than their ineffective response to the 2011 outages.4b

If you want to ensure this doesn’t happen again, and you are a Texas resident, your only hope at this point is to contact (or bombard, if you prefer) your state representatives and senators and let them know this is important to you. I would recommend the following key points:5

  • Customers lost power and need to be compensated for the outages. It is not fair that we bear the cost of this mistake.
  • The current bills in the house aren’t sufficient to protect customers from future outages.4b
  • Utilities and energy suppliers should be required to meet national engineering standards for reliability – and there should be a penalty for not meeting them.4b
  • Regulations aren’t always bad. As a customer, I’d rather pay a little more upfront to make sure utilities are required to meet reliability standards, rather than be forced to live through an outage and also pay more later to recoup costs.
  • If this ever happens again, customers should be compensated for the outage, not forced to carry the financial burden. I want to see legislation that will protect customers in the future.
  • The ERCOT and PUC board should NOT be political appointees. Customers’ interests must be well-represented. The boards should be made up of Texans from diverse professions, including customers not invested in the energy industry. Require that members be Texans from multiple political parties, multiple sectors, various professional backgrounds, and include individuals not invested in natural gas and financial institutions.
  • Update the Texas energy market by:
    • Setting a lower cap on wholesale electricity prices
    • Including capacity payments to improve reliability
    • Updating standards to have the option to join one of the larger US interconnects for added reliability.

Texans can find your state senator and state representatives here.

(Tip: Look for your STATE representative and STATE senate, not US senate and US rep.)

Once you know who they are, you can find their contact information here:

House –

Senate –

If all else fails, Texans can always vote for new state senators and representatives that recognize the value of certain regulations to protect consumers, especially in markets providing essential services, like water, energy, and health care.

For more on the Texas grid, market failure, and my musings about it all, see the footnotes below.



See Footnotes

Front Porch Hopping

Day after day, front porch after front porch, I’m still exploring the world. But these landscapes are a little different from my previous travels.

I find myself on a journey that I never imagined being on in a million years.

But here I am, first in Arizona, and now in Georgia, knocking on strangers’ doors, talking to them about issues that are impacting their lives and our collective experience as US citizens.

For 8 hours a day, 6 days a week, house after house, I approach front porch after front porch, and I raise my hand to knock on front door after front door.

And I wait.

I wait on a strangers’ front porch to see who and what will present itself.

I bring all of my hope for a better future and faith in our collective power to create the world we want to live it. I bring encouragement and information to make it easier for people to make their voices heard.

But will someone answer the door, or will I just be greeted by their barking dogs? (Some days I talk to more dogs than I do voters.)

Will I hear movements and voices quiet down as the people inside pretend they aren’t home?

Will they answer the door, puffing up their chest as if to defend their territory against enemy attack, and yell at me to go away, as if my approach to their personal space bubble was a threat to their very existence?

Or will the welcome me, ask me questions, and even thank me for what I’m doing?

Will they cuss at me angrily from inside as if I had personally offended them by knocking on their door? Or run outside yelling and call the cops on me?

Or will they be interested to engage in dialogue about our diverse collective experience in this country, and how we might make it better (whether we agree or not).

Maybe they will be the person who wasn’t going to vote, didn’t feel like their voice mattered, and needed a nudge to feel empowered.

Maybe they are the person who accidentally threw away their absentee ballot and needed to know where and when they could go vote in person.

Maybe they are the overwhelmed parent who just wouldn’t have made time to vote if I hadn’t been there to help them make a plan and send them a reminder text.

Maybe they are the first-time voter that didn’t know how or when to vote, and will thank me profusely for helping them to participate in American democracy for the first time.

It is for these last few people that I keep walking and keep knocking. I take those blows from the unwelcoming doors, so that I can find those people that benefit from my work – thankful for the reminder to vote, thankful for the information about where and when they can vote, thankful to talk about how policies are affecting their lives and to hear about alternative policies that could improve our collective American experience.

I keep knocking, sometimes annoying the #*@ out of people, getting yelled at, trying to extract people from their routines to make time to vote – not just for them, certainly not just for me, but for all of us, including the people who can’t vote – future generations that will be impacted by today’s policies, the disenfranchised, those who have passed away due to irresponsible response to the pandemic.

First-time voter braving the freezing cold and rain.

I do it to stand up against the racism and classism that wears on in our society, changing shape but persisting. I do it to fight against the voter suppression that our history books led us to believe no longer exists, and that some call “protection against voter fraud” despite studies showing that voter suppression is much more prevalent than voter fraud.

Empowered him to cast his ballot in AZ literally at the last minute

I do it for those that fled their country of origin to seek refuge only to have their basic human rights violated here in my country too.

I do it to fight against corruption and lies in their most blatant form, because I have seen how it breaks apart communities and cripples democracy. And as a kind of personal project, I knock to try to provide an alternative perspective for those who are only taking in the propaganda saturating our politics worse than ever before in my lifetime, and I recommend reliable information sources.

And I do it for my fellow teammates, who are far from family and friends for the holidays. Each one also pounding the streets for 8 hours a day, 6 days a week. Pouring out their hearts to strangers, working to make this country better for their families, friends, and fellow citizens.

Maxwell – the guy who got me here, team lead, and fellow tortuga

Karlia – my BFF and pretend wife

Ana – My 1-second team lead and inspiration

As I approach a front porch, I take in my surroundings, and often a personal touch made to the yard or front porch makes me smile. Ironically, sometimes the most unwelcoming responses come from the front porches with the extremely sunny “Welcome!” mats. And some of the most pleasant interactions have come from people with front porches adorned with, “Go Away”.

So as I come to the close of this great adventure, as always, I will share some of the great landscapes from this journey.

I saw this a few weeks ago, but wow is it relevant today, Jan 7, 2021.

Exploring Home

I’ve always loved to travel, but over the past year, I did something I’d never done before – I lived my life traveling, backpacking through South America. I stayed in countless places, trying to stay long enough to get to know people and get a taste of the culture, but usually not staying in one place for more than a week. While that rhythm allowed me to see many different places, it meant that just as I was getting settled in and feeling at home in one place, I was packing up and moving on, which meant constantly adjusting to a new place, constantly trying to feel at home in a new place.

Having to start a home from scratch over and over again, one learns to find home within, so that you always feel at home, wherever you are. (That’s a topic for a whole book, but here’s a peek into one way I carried home with me wherever I went).

Early on, I found I could feel at home wherever I was when I would do yoga. Despite having just left all stability and familiarity, when I did those familiar yoga poses,* watching the sun rise over Lake Titicaca, I felt perfectly at home, and right where I wanted to be in that moment.

Sunrise yoga at Santuario del Pacha Tata in Island Amantani, Peru, Lake Titicaca

From then on, I tried to do yoga in every place I visited, and it never failed to make me feel centered and right at home, even if I had recently been feeling that strange, subtle sensation of being a wanderer, far from home. It wasn’t always easy to do yoga everywhere, but I always found a way.

Sometimes it elicited strange looks, but it was always worth it. It was a great way to connect with a new place – physically and socially. I have fond memories of yoga-ing in the cold of the Bolivian Andes, in the hot, humid Peruvian and Colombian jungles, the hot, dry desert in northern Chile, and the cool autumn air in Argentina.

Yoga at Guatavita, Colombia with new friends from Venezuela and Colombia

It was also something I could share with people who had shared something with me, like the Argentine rugby player, or the kind, Quechua-speaking woman who did some yoga poses with me in her traditional clothing trying not to be too embarrassed when her neighbors passed by.

Yoga at Ccotos, Peru on Lake Titicaca, with the daughter of the family that hosted me.

I am now back in the US, but in a way, I am still traveling. And my journey has taken me unexpectedly back to my childhood home, visiting my parents. I haven’t lived here during my adult life, and I have only been back for short visits as an adult. It is in the same physical location where I grew up, but it has changed, the city has changed, my parents have changed, and I have changed.

And so, despite the undertones of familiarity, I feel like I have arrived to yet another new place to adapt to and to explore.

Within a few days of arriving, my mom told me that her chair yoga class was starting up again and she invited me to go with her. My first reaction was one million questions about the preventative measures being taken due to the coronavirus. (Yes it’s outdoors, yes everyone has to wear masks, yes there’s extra spacing between people, and yes, you have to bring your own chair.) We agreed that if it didn’t seem safe we’d leave. She pointed out that the instructor is an 84-year-old woman, so she probably wouldn’t have started the class back up if she didn’t think she could do it safely.

My second reaction was: “chair yoga?” Having recently hiked through the Andes and traveled around South America with a 40-lb backpack, you can imagine my expectations for a chair yoga class taught by an 84-year-old woman. First of all, I didn’t know that “chair” and “yoga” could go together to be one thing. (I typically do yoga to get out of the chair.) And even though my mom had told me it was a cool class, I admittedly imagined a few neck stretches and thought it might be kind of boring. But then I hadn’t met Gloria Simmons.

Ms. Simmons is a gem of a person. This 84-year-old woman is way more flexible than I could ever hope to be. She is one of those fierce, gentle spirits that is a natural leader, but in a subtle way that inspires you by making you feel comfortable and appreciated.

Walking into one of her classes, the atmosphere is casual, comfortable, and respectful. One of the first things one notes is the diversity of the class. There are participants of different ages, body types, flexibilities, abilities, and different races – about half black women and half white women, and sometimes a few Latinas. A woman in a wheel chair often attends and another with a walking cane.

The magic of Gloria is that she skillfully leads this diverse group of abilities so that everyone gets a good stretch and no one feels left out. And she teaches yoga with a chair! (Even though I’ve been to many classes now, I’m still impressed by the concept of chair yoga.) She didn’t invent chair yoga, but she did modify what she learned from videos and a PBS program to make it something interesting and versatile.

Our fearless leader, Gloria Simmons

Chair Yoga – Warrior 1

Surprisingly, Gloria came to yoga by accident, wandering into a class about 20 years ago when she was teaching an aerobics class at a rec center. She had never heard of yoga and expected it to be boring, but she realized that she had already been doing some of the stretches in her aerobics class, and she found that she actually liked it!

After about a month, the instructor encouraged her to become certified, so she signed up for what would become “the hardest week of her life”.  She almost didn’t make it past the second day of the certification class because her body was so sore and tired. But she recounts that her daughter made her dinner, told her to rest, and encouraged her to get through the week, so she stuck with it…and the rest is history!

Now she says she does yoga when she wakes up in the middle of the night, and later is able to go back to sleep. It’s her go-to way to relax and get centered, kind of like it has been for me during my travels.

She always reminds us to do the best we can and not to force anything since our bodies are all different. And at the end, she turns up the music and gets us out on the dance floor,** leading us in an aerobics-type dance at first, and then encouraging free style, making sure each person takes a few turns in the center of the dance circle. Even the woman in the wheelchair gets out there and shakes it!

She also does mat yoga classes each week, where she really blows us away with how flexible she is! (I definitely realized how ageist I had been with my preconceived notions of what an 84-year-old instructor would be like; she showed me!)

All of this, she does as a volunteer, sharing something that has helped her, something that she enjoys, with others.

Here in Texas, we are all dealing with the stress of the uptick in COVID-19 cases, and we have leaders that openly stated their concern for the economy over people’s lives. Then the death of George Floyd. And the subsequent protests and racism – anti-racism clashes. We are all living in challenging times, and Ms. Simmons creates this safe and healthy space, where we can escape from all of that for an hour, do something good for our bodies, and feel at peace for an hour or so, two times a week.

And that safe space, where everyone is welcome and accepted – all body types, all ages, all abilities, all races – is just what we all need right now during these turbulent and strange times.

Once again, thanks to yoga, (and to Ms. Simmons) I have been able to feel a little more at home along my journey.



Famous Footnotes

* Around 10 years ago I started doing yoga-like stretches every day as part of my routine to help manage back problems, and I’ve kept it up ever since. During my Peace Corps service, I held yoga classes for the over-worked elementary school teachers, and we all enjoyed a few moments of de-stressing at the end of the day. So, when I really think about it, it’s not surprising that doing something that has been part of my daily routine for 10 years would help me feel at home in a new place.

**We dance in a huge circle, all with the appropriate physical distancing, especially since most people are in a high-risk group for complications from COVID-19.

Most of the photos are credited to Majic, Gloria’s god-son.

Perspectives: How bad is it?

Remember that big question raised at the beginning of the pandemic – How bad is COVID-19 anyway?

This question is really fun because it’s like an optical illusion. The answer greatly depends on perspective, and the final outcome greatly depends on what we believed at the beginning. This time it’s not one of those inspirational “if you believe it, it will be!”, but rather the opposite.

Ironically, if we had believed it was bad when we saw the first cases in the US, we would have done everything possible to contain it and it wouldn’t have “been so bad”.

But because of the outbreak and the tragically lost lives in the northeast, the rest of the nation decided that it was something to take seriously and took preventative measures…which then kept it from being tragic in other parts of the country…(leading to protests to open things back up because “it wasn’t so bad after all).”

What a clever trick. By believing it isn’t such a big deal, it becomes a big deal. Believing it is a big deal, we keep it from being a big deal.

While we’re talking about the importance of perspective, let’s look at the question of the magnitude of COVID-19, first from a birds-eye view and then a more personal perspective, using hard data. (What did you expect from an engineer?)

During its first five months,1 the coronavirus has already killed more people in the US than the flu AND pneumonia did over the course of the entire year in previous years, having killed 34.52 people for every 100,000 people. That means it is already more deadly than the flu, diabetes, and Alzheimer disease, and it continues to climb. If you calculate the rate of deaths per month, COVID-19 is the third deadliest threat in the US this year, after heart disease and cancers.

* The first reported case in the US was January 21, 2020. I took data publicly available from the CDC, which has published the leading causes of death in the US in 2017 and 2018. Data from 2017 and 2018 are averaged because they show similar rates between the two years and the top 10 causes do not vary between the years nor does the order. Monthly death rate assumes that death rates from previous years were equal across all years, and assuming that the current deaths were evenly distributed across the number of months since the first COVID-19 case in the US. Source:

Here is the trend worldwide instead of just in the US, and a much cooler infographic than I can do in Excel. (Here’s the link in case it doesn’t show up for  you.)



So there you have a bird’s-eye-view perspective. Now let’s look at the perspective of personal experience – how individuals might be experiencing the mortality rate of COVID-19.

First, there are those that have lost their lives or lost loved ones due to the disease, like my friend who lost her grandmother. My heart goes out to you. These numbers that I’m analyzing will seem really cold and useless to you. But they might help explain why there are many people out there that are apathetic and ignoring or even denying the pandemic.

In the US, people are currently (as of June 11) dying from COVID-19 at approximately the same rate (actually a bit higher) as people died from accidents in previous years, making it the third most prominent cause of death after heart disease and cancer. Did you know someone who died in an accident last year? Odds are that if 1,200 people read this, only one person will answer “yes”.

Another way to look at it: How many people do you know (think Facebook friends and real friends.) If you know 1,200 people, the odds are good that you will know one person who died from COVID-19. But actually, even that’s not completely accurate because nearly 42% of deaths have been in New York state, New Jersey, and Connecticut.1 So if you don’t live there or don’t know many of people there, the odds of knowing someone who has died from COVID-19 go down to one in about 1,700 people. If you don’t know 1,700 people and you don’t know someone in an outbreak area, odds are good that you don’t know someone who died from COVID-19.

So to summarize:

Is COVID-19 killing more people than the flu?

  • Yes – at more than five times the rate of flu deaths.

Is COVID-19 is a major cause of death for people in the US this year?

  • Yes – it’s the third leading cause of death this year so far.

Are you likely to know someone who has died from COVID-19?

  • Depends on where you live and who you know, but the majority of Americans likely won’t personally know someone who died from it.

From a birds-eye-view and for those who have lost loved ones, it is obvious that COVID-19 is a deadly disease. That said, the majority of the US population has not been directly affected by a COVID-19 death, and that might help explain why some people are more upset about the shut-downs than the sickness itself.

Speaking of those shut-downs, let’s not forget that they are the reason that the death rate isn’t higher than it is. Closing things slowed the spread, buying us time for at least three important preparations:

  1. Public health education. Closing things drew attention to the problem – it forced people to pay attention, creating an environment and time to disseminate information so that people could protect themselves and others. Even after opening, the virus will not spread as quickly as if we hadn’t shut down, simply because many people are now taking precautions.2
  2. Hospital preparation. The closures slowed the spread, gaining the majority of the US time to reinforce hospitals, acquire supplies, and train staff.
  3. Improved treatment. The closures bought us time to learn how to more effectively treat patients. Every day we learn something new about treating the virus (like patient positioning, monitoring blood oxygen levels, and the use of oxygen and ventilators). Additionally, every day researchers are working towards a vaccine.

So closing down and slowing the spread means that thousands of people didn’t get sick in April. Now that they know how to protect themselves, thousands might not even contract the virus. As things are opening up in many places, many people will get sick in June and July, but by then, doctors and hospitals will be better prepared to treat them, which will mean the difference between life and death for many.

But we are not through this yet. We still control our destiny. Remember the paradox: COVID-19 was deadly at first because we didn’t believe it was so deadly. Once we believed it to be deadly, it became less deadly because precautions were taken.

So as things begin to open up, and we continue with our daily lives, remember that while we bought ourselves time and our hospitals and doctors are now more prepared, if we take it too lightly, that tricky paradox could get the best of us.

What a clever trick. By believing it isn’t such a big deal, it becomes a big deal. Believing it is a big deal, we keep it from being a big deal.

Famous Footnotes:

This article was an interesting survey of how epidemiologists are managing risk in their personal lives to find that right balance between taking care of their mental and physical health while protecting themselves and others from the virus. It reinforced my decision to engage in outdoor activities, maintaining 6-9 feet from people outside my safe circle, to wear a mask in public, and to avoid indoor spaces with people outside of my safe circle altogether.


I calculated the current monthly death rate in the US to be 7.3/100,000 people, and 5.0/100,000 excluding NY, NJ, and CN, compared to accidents at 4.1/100,000 people.

  1. There is still a great deal of misinformation out there and some people not taking the necessary precautions, but the fact that many are really help control the spread. We will see in the following months if it is enough to keep things under control.

**Here’s a good table from the CDC breaking down deaths from COVID and pneumonia and the flu, if you like that level of detail:


We Need to Talk

The tension in the air in the US right now is so thick you can cut it with a knife. Fear is rampant, but not everyone is afraid of the same thing. We are afraid of each other.

The phrase “divide and conquer” comes to my mind as I feel Americans become more and more divided, and I fear how we might be conquered.

But I also see so many uniting, which gives me incredible hope. I have been a part of some conversations where people are really listening to each other’s differing perspectives and experiences and trying to learn from each other. I see people struggling through the discomfort of hearing a different opinion that scares them and being patient and trying to understand it.

But I also have been in many spaces where different opinions and perspectives are not something that people can discuss civilly. Where conversations aren’t seen as a way to better understand each other and the world; rather they lead to defensiveness and cause people to shut down and/or to start slinging insults. And I see a lot of people only having conversations within groups with similar opinions and not branching out to try to understand the opinions of people outside their comfort zone.

It’s as if we never learned those basic lessons of dialogue. We are all Americans, we are all humans that want to live in a safer America, and yet somehow we lost the ability to listen to each other about what a safer world for everyone would look like.

I’m hoping this can be a bridging tool to help us take a step closer to having some productive difficult conversations.

Original source of image unclear

Simplifying the complex issues brought up by the recent protests, I see two predominate perspectives – contradictory, though equally valid and true to those who hold them.

Perspective 1: The police keep our communities safe. If we feel threatened, we can call the police. Only guilty people have reason to be afraid of the police. Defunding the police would be a disaster in public safety.

For people whose experience with the police has mostly been positive, (other than traffic tickets or mild offenses,) this perspective will probably resonate. The recent protests often make these people feel threatened because it seems like the institution that keeps them safe – the police and the criminal justice system – is being threatened, by the protests and by calls for defunding the police.

Perspective 2: Many police officers abuse their power, and the string of police brutality incidents against black people are blatant indicators that racism is still very alive in America, especially in the criminal justice system. Police officers and the entire criminal justice system need to be held accountable, reformed, even defunded, and structural racism must be addressed.

For people of color who have experienced racism by police officers or in other areas of their life, this statement will ring true, and the sight of a police officer will often incite fear rather than a sense of security. For them, the George Floyd-inspired protests give them hope for a safer, more just America, despite the fear they feel as unarmed citizens when they see the armed officers policing the protests and the white men with guns, counter-protesting.

Both of these perspectives are real and valid and varied (as I said, I simplified a complex issue into a binary issue to be able to take a first step in talking about it.) Though they seem contradictory, many people are starting to be able to hold both perspectives in their mind at one time. And this, to me is the first step forward.

To be clear, I’m not saying that each perspective deserves equal weight.

The majority of people who identify with Perspective 1 are white, and the majority of black people identify Perspective 2. Yes, there are exceptions, but speaking in terms of majorities, there is a clear race line between these perspectives.

Yep, I brought up race and made a generalization about different experiences based on the color of our skin. I’m such a racist, some will say.

“Equality means we’re all equal and so we shouldn’t even see black and white, and we should have equal standards for everyone; the best way to achieve equality is to be colorblind.” I used to believe that.

And then I spoke to people of color and learned about their personal experiences of racism that I had never in my life experienced or witnessed outside of books and movies; I wasn’t aware of how prevalent the experience of discrimination still is today for many people of color.

If racism didn’t exist, sure we could all be colorblind. But since racism DOES still exist, saying we are colorblind is turning a blind eye to an injustice that we are living with, here in the nation where we strive for Justice and Liberty For All. Turning a blind eye to racism is turning a blind eye to our American principles.

So if people actually have different experiences based on the color of their skin, we need to talk about these differences to understand each other. And one important question would be why does race have anything to do with whether someone feels threatened or hopeful by the current protests? Why does race have anything to do with whether cops make us feel safe or not?

Understanding the difference between these two perspectives is crucial to finding a solution that will help people of the both perspectives feel safe and secure.

As we have known for decades (but it seems to only recently be getting a lot of attention and hasn’t made it into basic education), there is plenty of proof 1 that racism is alive and well in the criminal justice system, keeping alive the Jim Crow laws, but in a more subtle way. It’s often not that blacks are more likely to commit crimes, it’s that they are more likely to get caught and punished, indicating an underlying racism in both law enforcement personnel and the criminal justice system.

People of color are disproportionately stopped without cause by police officers, and they are also searched at a much higher rate than whites. Despite the fact that blacks were searched more often than whites, contraband was more often found on whites.2

Studies also showed blacks being spoken to in a more degrading manner than whites by the same officers.1

And despite the fact that rates of drug use are equal among races, blacks are charged for drug offenses at much higher rates than whites.3

While more whites are killed by police officers annually, blacks are killed at a disproportionate rate – nearly 3 times as often, compared to their share of the population – and those blacks killed were more likely to be unarmed than the whites killed.4

I have been afraid of getting a ticket or getting a fine when I’m pulled over by a cop, but I have never feared for my life, like my black friend, who is an upstanding citizen and serves in the military. I also have never been pulled over for no reason, whereas it has happened to him twice.

These experiences of discrimination are not only different from the majority of white experiences, they are negative, frustrating, dehumanizing, even life-threatening, and unfair.

The history of this country has been dominated by white people talking and a vast majority of black people having to be submissive, deferring to the white voice, having to be more patient and humble because they could be killed or jailed or lose their job if they didn’t.

And it still happens today. I have had multiple black friends tell me stories of how they are held to a higher standard than their white counterparts in their jobs; they have witnessed harsh repercussions for black people who lose their cool, compared to white people that don’t even get reprimanded for the same or worse responses to stress or unjust personal attacks.

So, it’s time for whites to switch the centuries-old race role and defer to black voices. It’s white people’s turns to be held to the higher standard of being more patient, empathetic, and understanding, as our fellow Americans tell us about their experiences being people of color.4

White people (including me!) are not the experts on racism because we haven’t had the same experiences due to the color of our skin. (Maybe we’ve had similar experiences for other reasons – for our gender or sexual orientation, etc, and that can help us be more empathetic, but it is still a different experience with a different history.)

So I would argue that even if you identify with Perspective 1, we as a nation and as individuals need to invest more of our time listening to and trying to understand Perspective 2.

For example, someone with Perspective 1 will be incredibly scared of the idea “defund the police force” because it will be seen as taking critical resources away from a fundamental part of one’s safety. But if we can actually converse on a deeper level about this hot-button topic, the validity of both sides can be seen. For example, imagine 911 calls related to a person experiencing homeless being routed to professionals in organizations that are funded and prepared to work specifically with the homeless community instead of being routed to the police. It could be a burden taken off of police and instead given to experts in that area.

Source: Instagram @auntsarahdraws

As we are having important conversations about the protests, about police, and about racism in the US, let’s remember that we all want to feel safe and secure in our communities, and we want all our children to grow up in an America that is safe for them. To do that, we need to listen especially hard to those that currently don’t feel safe and have a history of not having their voices heard.

There are obviously many issues underlying the protests spurred by the death of George Floyd, but let’s take them one at a time and give them the response they deserve. When the reality of racism that still exists is highlighted by those affected by it, don’t change the subject to the other issues faced by our nation. Listen. Empathize. Learn. Recognize the problem and think of ways that we can make real changes.

It is a long and difficult road, but we need to have those hard conversations with those with differing perspectives. This is how we create a more perfect union, a free world, where there is truly liberty and justice for all.

Listen: 1619 Podcast
Watch a video: Systemic Racism
Watch a series: 13th (Netflix)
Look (Instagram): An Explanation “Defunding Police” in 10 Photos
Read articles: Reflections from a Token Black Friend
Read books: Anti-racist reading list
Do: From donating to volunteering to activism


Famous Footnotes

(1) This article is a compilation of studies demonstrating that racism in policing is not confined to certain isolated incidents that make the news, but rather it is the predominant trend in the instituation.




(5) If the majority of your conversations about race are with other white people or the handful of black people that are against the protests, are you really getting enough information to really be able to understand both sides of the issue? Are you truly trying to understand racism on a deeper level?

In the ideal world, a white person that truly wants to understand racism would be listening to many voices of the black protesters and trying to understand their perspective. They would seek out multiple perspectives and read as much as possible about black history – how Reconstruction after the Civil War was interrupted by a political deal over an election contest, sending millions of recently freed slaves to be subjected to a century more of injustice. How the civil rights movement of the 1960’s stalled out when it tried to address the problems of systemic racism that still persist today.

That is not to say that white people conversing with white people is not also a valuable conversation. In fact, many of my black friends have expressed how incredibly tired they are trying to explain their experiences, only to have their experiences invalidated, to have them fall on deaf ears, to hear unfounded excuses for the racism they have experienced, or tell them that they are playing the victim and that white people experience those things too. That is why it is also time to step out of our comfort zones and be advocates (without pretending to be experts) in white-white conversations.

Uniquely Argentina

Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina!

I hope to be back soon, but in the meantime, I wanted to share some of the Argentina-esque experiences that I found to be unique compared to other countries I’ve visited.1

First, Argentina is huge. It’s nearly as long (north-to-south) as the US is wide (east-to-west).

Argentina rotated and overlaid on the US. Source:

As such, it has an incredible diversity of landscapes – a variety of deserts, salt flats, forests, lakes, mountains, coast, and more that I have yet to discover.

Quiz: Where can you find the tallest mountain in the Americas?

You guessed it; it's in Argentina!
Nope, it's NOT in the Patagonia.
It's called Aconcagua, and rises to 22,841 ft (6,962 meters), located in the province of Mendoza near the Chilean border.

Being in the southern hemisphere, the seasons are opposite to those in the US – and most places throughout the country experience all four seasons pronounced, (unlike many of the other South American countries I’ve visited that are located closer to the equator and often experience two seasons – rainy and dry season). In some places in the north it can reach more than 120°F heat index in the summer. Meanwhile, the southern-most part of the country has 19 hours of sunlight during peak summer (December 21), and only about five hours of daylight in peak winter, similar to Alaska.

I had the pleasure of spending a month traveling through the northern half of the country, following the western border with Chile, along “La Ruta 40”. (My travel path is drawn in purple on the map.)

When I first entered Argentina in the north, I stayed a few days in the city of San Salvador de Jujuy. My first impression was that it reminded me more of a small city in the US than of a comparable-sized city in the other South American countries I have visited.

I tried to figure out why, and I decided it was mainly because of the number of people driving around in personal vehicles. Also, there was a network of wide roads and bridges with clean sidewalks and well-maintained buildings. And the water from the tap was potable!

When I was told that this province was one of the poorer provinces of Argentina, I realized there was more wealth in Argentina than in other countries I had visited in South America. (Argentina does in fact have the second highest GNI per capita in South America, (after Chile) – twice that of Colombia, which has the next highest.)2

My first impression of Argentina: San Salvador de Jujuy

Having been a rural water systems engineer in Peru, trying to improve drinking water quality there, I was really happy to find that I could drink from the tap in all the places I visited throughout my time in Argentina, not just in Jujuy. (Though I was told that it might be questionable to drink from the tap in some of the smaller, more remote towns in the country.)

Quiz 2: Where was the biggest dinosaur in the world found?

Yep, also Argentina! Argentinosaurus is the biggest dinosaur skeleton found in the world so far, and Giganotosaurus is the biggest carnivore discovered so far - both found in the Patagonia of Argentina.

Bear with me, while I geek out a little bit more.

I love walkable cities, and many of the cities I visited in Argentina were, well, somewhat walkable. That is to say that in most neighborhoods you could always find a store with the necessities within walking distance if you don’t mind walking a bit.

The cities tended to sprawl, (probably due to the extensive space available,) so they were designed to accommodate vehicle traffic necessary to carry you those longer distances across the city, which often takes away from the walkability of a place. (On the other hand, all the small towns were very walkable – possibly one of the reasons I love small towns so much.)

Most cities had good (but not exceptional) public transportation. What was exceptional was the universal fare card for public transportation that works in multiple cities throughout the country!3

The only down side is that you are obligated to use the fare card to pay the bus fare and you aren’t allowed to pay cash on the bus (like many other countries). Since I didn’t have a card, I had to find someone who would pay my fare and I would pay them cash. More correctly, I would TRY to pay them my fare in cash, but 99% of the people who paid my fare with their card refused to let me pay them back, looking at me like I was crazy and saying, “Por favoooor!”

If you have read my previous blogs, you are familiar with the surprising levels of generosity I came across during my travels in Argentina, and this is just one example. It was very rare that someone would let me pay them back for them something they offered me or helped me with, and I was often met with a “Por favor!” (“Please! You will NOT be paying me back for that!”), as if they were offended that I didn’t realize it was a gift, and I was insulting them for even thinking that I should offer them something monetary in return.

Even thanking someone was often met with a “Por favor!”, bringing Argentina in competition with Colombia for the kindest response to “Thank you”. (The most common response to “Thank you” in Colombia was, “Con gusto!” or “with pleasure!”)

Maybe you remember mate (“mah-tay”)? This is such a unique characteristic and defining feature of the country that I have to mention it here.

Mate (“mah-tay”) is a ritual, a tradition, a social activity, a part of daily life, and/or an event. It’s like drinking coffee in the mornings (and/or throughout the day). It’s like having a smoke break. It’s like having a drink with friends or co-workers. It’s like offering a beer to a stranger or an acquaintance. It’s like inviting people over for brunch.

Mate is an herb from northeast Argentina (also grown in the bordering regions of Paraguy and southern Brazil) that is drunk as a loose-leaf tea in a special recipient (also called a “mate”), with a special metal straw called a “bombilla”. There is a universal procedure for preparing the mate and etiquette for drinking it – it’s serious business.

Everyone drinks mate,4 and most people drink it all throughout the day. If you are with someone else, you drink mate together, and if you want to be cordial with someone who passes by, you offer them a mate.

Another thing that stood out about Argentina is that everyone was white.4 Hyperbole again. But, the percentage of white people was astounding compared to what I had seen in other South American countries. It turns out that in addition to the Spaniard colonists, Argentina had a huge migration of Italians starting in about 1860 and lasting for around a century.

I’m not sure if it’s related, but Argentina has a unique way of speaking Castellano (Spanish)…so much so, that in Argentina I felt like I had regressed a couple years in my understanding of Spanish, and I often had to listen extra carefully and ask people to repeat things.

Every country has its own slang and unique terms, but in Argentina verbs are actually pronounced differently and the “y” and “ll” are pronounced like “jsh” instead of “y”… in addition to all the slang and Argentina-specific words.

Besides getting used to the accent, one of the first language differences I had to learn was the Argentina use of “Viste?”

“Viste?” doesn’t only mean “did you see?” like everywhere else I had been. In Argentina, it’s a way to say “you know?”, just like “Cacha’i?” in Chile.

For example, someone would be explaining to me, “I work 8 hours in the office, and then I work three more hours in the night at the restaurant down the street, “viste?”, and I replied “no, no lo he visto” (“No, I haven’t seen that restaurant.”), thinking they were asking if I’d seen the restaurant where they worked.

But they were really saying “You know what I mean?” So I should have nodded in understanding, saying, “Si,” (“Yeah, I get you; that’s a long day of work!”) Oops.

Thankfully, my first couchsurfing host realized my misunderstanding after he received a few unexpected responses, and he was nice enough to explain the Argentina “viste” to me.

My favorite Argentin-ism is probably “che”, which is how you can refer to someone to get their attention – a friend, a partner, or even someone you don’t know. The closest thing in English would be saying “hey”, (though to me, che seemed to be a little warmer than “hey” and a little closer to a universal nickname for everyone).

“Che, can you pass me the salt?” “What do you think about this, Che?” “Che, look at this!” “Let’s go to the city, Che.”5

Also, “Re” (pronounced “ray”) added to the beginning of a word doesn’t mean it’s been done again like in English; it adds emphasis, like saying “really”, “super”, or “extra”.

“Re interesante, che!” (“Really interesting, che!”)

This is not nearly a summary of Argentina, but simply a compilation of a few experiences that I found to be unique to Argentina in my short time backpacking through parts of the country, after having visited a few other countries in South America. I never made it to the capital, Buenos Aires, nor to much of the Patagonia (except Bariloche); I really only got a quick peek of the country.

Like most countries, each region has its own sub cultures, and the more time you spend in a place, the better you get to know it as you see past the superficial experiences of a few encounters with a few people. So I hope you enjoy my observations, but also take them with a grain of salt; and I hope to one day be able to explore more, and if so, I’ll share more with you here!


Famous Footnotes

  1. These are things that were unique to Argentina, based on my travels, having explored Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, and Bolivia. However, some things, (like mate,) aren’t restricted to the borders of Argentina and can also be found in some of the neighboring countries of Paraguy, Brazil, and even parts of Chile.
  2. Argentina’s GNI is 1/3 that of the US. GNI = Gross National Income. I looked at GNI per capita, converted by PPP (purchasing power parity) from 2018, as reported by the World Bank, which can be found here:
  3. The “SUBE” is the universal bus/metro card
  4. Please allow my hyperbole.
  5. Though attributed to Argentina, some say that “che” actually originated much earlier in Europe. (Fun facts for the linguists among you).,