Tuesday, November 25, 2014

On giving thanks

A few hours ago, I was sitting near the spot of Jesus' ascension on Mount Olive. The sky had just unleashed a torrent of rain, and the dark and foreboding clouds were still rolling over the hills and valleys of the Jerusalem. A few rays of light pierced the clouds, falling on the shimmering golden facade of the Dome of the Rock. Before me lay all of the Old City of Jerusalem, its massive walls, the imposing Temple Mount, and the sweeping hills soaked with history and memories and war and suffering and hope. And I felt so far from the tiny town that I came from.

My family didn't have much when I was growing up. On my dad's side, my grandfather was a construction worker and my grandmother was illiterate. My mom immigrated from Taiwan when she was 16. Her parents were divorced. And her mom did data entry at a hospital while her dad had gambling problems.

My parents weren't able to finish college. They started a family while they were young, and had only a small apprentice salary in the beginning. At first, they could only afford a tiny attic apartment in rural Pennsylvania, but they slowly saved up for a small house. I think sometimes about how hard it must have been, all the sacrifices they made to save money and provide for their kids. I remember the cold nights during the winter because heating was too expensive, so we huddled around the fireplace and chimney to do our homework. I remember sorting through coupons at thrift stores and clipping them from newspapers, as we tried to save every penny we could. I remember the recycling centers where we could bring cans and jars to exchange for money, and I remember the dry milk and large bags of kashi cereal. I remember the slow painstaking renovations on the house every weekend. Our weekly and nightly ritual of home construction.

Despite everything, my parents provided a lot for my brothers and me. We would take vacations every year, epic road trips to Canada and Wyoming and Montana, sleeping in the car or cramming the whole family into small hotel rooms. They taught us to be good people and take care of those around us, provided us all with great educations, and gave us opportunities that they never saw. By the time I was in highschool and heading to Princeton, my parents had built a comfortable life for themselves and their family. I don't know for sure what the American dream is, but I'm fairly sure that I lived at least part of it.

Someone recently commented to me that she hoped I'd find experiences, memories on this trip that would make me feel grateful. I know I have, but even more than that, the trip itself, just to be in Jerusalem, makes me feel grateful. I'm here because of hundreds of different choices I've made, but more importantly, I'm here because of all the difficult choices my parents made. For the values they instilled in me, the education they gave me, and for the opportunities they provided me.

I'm in Jerusalem, and I'm very far from home. But I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for my home. And despite all its craziness and complications, for that I'm very grateful.

Happy thanksgiving.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014


Victoria. Her name was Victoria.

I met her my first night in Turkey. It was in a dimly light upstairs club in Istanbul. She was brought over to my table by some of the waiters at the club. I had ended up there after meeting a Turkish man when I was walking around the Hagia Sofia late at night. He approached me claiming to be visiting from Cyprus, and after a short conversation, he offered to take me to a local bar. It was a standard scam for young solo male travelers, and I decided to play along and see where it led. We took a short cab ride to the club, and that’s where I met her.

Victoria was tall and pretty, and sat next me. She moved close to me, put her hand on my leg, and I remembered how good the warmth of flesh felt. She said that she was 20 and from the Ukraine. Ukraine is only a few hours flight to Turkey. I knew Turkey to be a common destination for trafficked Ukrainian girls. The most common route is to move the trafficked girls overland through Georgia and Bulgaria, or cross the Black Sea from the Ukrainian port of Odessa.

At the club, there were many girls dancing on the stage. Mostly young and pretty. All in short tight skirts. She said that they were mostly from Eastern Europe. My host sat at the table next to me. They brought an older Turkish woman to the table with Victoria. The Turkish woman sat with my host. It’s common for a Madame to work at places like this. She may have been trafficked herself, or have a relationship with one of the traffickers. She becomes an insider and enforcer of sorts. For the Madame, it may have been a way to escape the violence and brutality of the industry, a way to gain some position by turning on those caught in the same trap. She may have been there to watch Victoria, to observe and ensure Victoria played her part. My host tried to push drinks on us and said Victoria and I should get closer or dance or something.

When my host left the table, I asked Victoria if she was ok. I asked her if anyone hurt her or mistreated her. I asked her whether she could leave when she wanted and whether she felt safe. She said she did. She said no one hurt her.

After a little while, I left the club. My host was clearly annoyed that I wasn’t spending more money. On the car ride back, he made up extra charges – an entrance fee, a cover charge, an additional charge for the girls. He said I had to pay him more money. I said I wouldn’t and that I didn’t agree to those charges. He told me that I come to Turkey and “fuck but then don’t pay.” He then said he left his phone at the club and we had to go back. I tapped the driver on the shoulder and I said I was getting out. When the car stopped at a light, I opened the door and left. I walked back to my hostel through the winding deserted streets of Istanbul.

I don’t know if Victoria was a victim of human trafficking. I don’t know if behind her smile and warmth was a story of hardship and pain and brutality and suffering. I don’t know what, if any, hell she went back to. I don’t know if she was willingly playing along with the scam or coerced into it. I don’t even know her name.

Victoria. Victoria was almost certainly a stage name. She may have picked it herself to protect her identity. Her cover at the club. Or it may have been picked for her. A way to isolate and control her, to prevent any well-meaning person from finding a way to reach her. The truth is for all I know about human trafficking, I knew nothing about her. I had no idea how to help her, or whether she even needed help. Human trafficking is a crime wrapped in the disguise of consent. And this bramble of uncertainty leaves us powerless. Lost in its vines, unable to unravel the story, or even learn her name.

She said her name was Victoria. I did all I could. The lies we tell in order to survive.

Post-script: If you want more information about human trafficking, you can check out my article on domestic sex trafficking, Finding Safe Harbor, which was recently cited by U.S. House Judiciary Committee. The National Human Trafficking Hotline is also a great resource if you think you've witnessed human trafficking or want more information.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011


I’ve been thinking of her face a lot recently.

Long black flowing hair. Deep, dark, penetrating eyes. Soft, warm hands part clenching, part caressing mine.

And it’s possible she was begging me to rape her.

Late at night along Khao San road - that famous backpackers’ haunt in Bangkok - as the parties begin to wind down, the prostitutes without a client for the night become more desperate. They follow you and beg. They grab your hands with both of theirs. Stare deep into your eyes, the desperation etched onto their young, beautiful faces – carrying echoes of pain far beyond their years.

I don’t know if she was a trafficking victim. I don’t know if beyond the façade of consent there was a story of brutality and violence and psychological manipulation, or whether it was just the daily bite of poverty. But I know for many of the girls, the daily rapes are preferred to returning to the pimp or mama-san without filling their quota, and so they hold your hands in theirs, and stare deep into your eyes and beg to be violated.

Behind each story of horror is a panoply of characters. The pimps lurking in the corner, negotiating the price, and arranging the meet-up. The girls often offered promises of love and comfort. As one ex-prostitute said, the pimps know to target the girls who “just want to be loved.” And then there are the clients, the Johns. Outsourcing violence to the pimps so they can carry out rape without being a rapist, so they can live out every fantasy and desire, while maintaining a mask of innocence, hidden behind a façade of consent, perhaps even charity for the impoverished girls they exploit.

I could’ve told this story not of Thailand but of almost any city or town in the U.S. The average age of entry into prostitution in the U.S. is 12 to 14. There are over 2,500 prostituted minors in NYC. They are over 100,000 prostituted minors in the US. They work on street corners. They’re advertised online and in newspapers. They’re sold by parents and friends and lovers and strangers. They’re sold in small residential towns and in fancy escort services. And they’re all hidden in plain sight. Impossible to find. Yet found constantly by Johns eager to find some soft, warm flesh. As International Justice Mission’s president, Gary Haugen, reflected: "It's the easiest kind of crime in the world to spot. Men look for it all day, every day."

Some girls are sold 40 times a night. The DOJ worked a case where a girl was sold 68 times in one night. You begin to do the math. 40 rapes a night. 5-6 nights a week. 200-240. For a month. 6000-7200. For a year. And the horror can seem almost too much to be true.

People sometimes ask me how I do this work. Frankly, I don’t know how you couldn’t. You stare into the eyes of someone stripped of their humanity and sold as meat, you see children dancing half-naked on stage to satiate the appetites of Western and local sex tourists. You meet a slave. How can you live with yourself if you don’t try to do something about it?

Today, March 8, is International Women’s Day. In Vanderbilt Hall, a coalition of NYU law school student groups will be fundraising for GEMS, and showing “Very Young Girls,” a documentary about prostitution of minors in NYC, about sex trafficking in NYC. It’s an important reminder of the horror and pain all around us, and the real people caught up in it. And it’s even more important to remember, to learn about the people fighting against it – person by person.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Banos to Puyo 2 - drenched...

I started off early again because I knew I had 35 to 36 kms to cover to Puyo and several long hikes. The main trail covered a series of 8 waterfalls. The first 7 you had to scramble over rocks, through lush green forests with barely existent trails to get to them. The last waterfall was more built up, and had a fairly developed trail of ladders and walkways down the mountain to get its base. The waterfall itself was amazing. It had two levels pouring into dark green pools of water at its base. I found a place to sit and eat some snacks.

After finishing the trail, my main bike ride began. I switched on some Rammstein and Pantera for the energy in the challenging uphill ride ahead, my leg still hurting from yesterdays accident. About an hour into the trail, it started raining. I kept going. In a few hours, I found a place to eat in the tiny town of Rio Negro. The sun had broken the rain for a bit, and it seemed like it was clearing up. I forgot that I was leaving the highlands and heading towards the rainforest. After Rio Negro, it started raining... harder, and then pouring. For the next two hours, rains slashed down the trail and road reducing visibility. I took shelter under trees for a bit before realizing it wasnt really helping, and just plowed through, climbing hills and racing down mountains, the lush countryside obscured by thick fog. Finally, the rain broke and made it the last 12 kms to Puyo, dripping with rain and sweat.

The trail was done, and as for me, I feel like another adventure... after a nap.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Banos to Puyo 1 - What a day...

Today I covered 25 kms on bike, 10 kms on foot (up and down mountains). I´m sunburnt, bruised, bleeding, and sleeping in a hotel that´s still under construction. Man, backpacking is awesome.

The day started out early. I got up around 7 am to start hiking and headed to the trail to Bellavista Mirador, up one of the mountains overlooking the tourist trap of Banos (but jumping off point for some off-trial adventures). At the overlook, you see an incredible view of Banos, sheltered by lush green hills and a snow-capped volcano in the distance. I continued up the trail to the small village of Runtun. On the way down, there was several large groups of school children heading up for a special English class. A few of the teachers stopped to ask me directions, laughing that they were asking directions from the sunburnt gringo on the trail. The long lines of kids would have give me high fives (or rather low-fives since they were so short) as they passed me. There were also several groups of stragglers, kids around 9 or 10, lagging behind on the long, hot trek up the mountain. They also stopped to ask me how to the get to the school, and for a few precious moments, we chatted in Spanish about their English class and I gave them directions up the trail. It was probably the first and only time I will ever be asked for directions from Ecuadorians, in Ecuador.

I made my way down the rest of the trail to the Virgin Mary overlook, and then returned to Banos to prep for my bike trip. I grabbed a quick lunch of cuy or guinea pig from a local stall. Stacks of the guinea pigs lay on the grill, including several on sticks. It never ceases to amaze me how, even in a tourist trap like Banos, you can quickly leave the beaten path and find local stores and vendors, which offer more authentic experience for less money (and with better food).

Finally, I was ready to set off on the Banos to Puyo bike trail. It would take too long to describe everything on the trail, but here are a few highlights.

At Mano de Novia, a gorgeous double waterfall, I took a small, rickety cable car to the top of the waterfalls and a small village. They had a tiny fishing pond, and two local women caught one of the fish for my second lunch. I took it to go, and then hiked down to the bottom of the waterfall, eating my food as the power of the falls sprayed water in my direction.

Continuing the trial, I found another waterfall, name El Placer, which is rarely visited by tourists. I went off wandering the back trails, locals pointed me to a path to the cascade, and I found a spot halfway down, water streaming down both sides of me, and the water plunging over the precipice just a few steps from where I sat.

The next major waterfall was Pailon del Diabolo. After a long hike down, you climb through a narrow cave system to get right below the waterfall, its raw power drenching you with the cold, refreshing water. After that, you can continue the hike to a small rickety bridge giving you a clear view of both levels of the falls.

At this time it was getting rather late, so I needed to hike back up and look for a place to sleep in Rio Verde, a small town surrounded by lush green hills and a roaring river. I asked around for a hostel, and locals only mentioned one to me, which I visited but was overpriced. I knew there were supposed to be other hostels further down the road, so I decided to set off and see if I could find them. In my haste, I got distracted waving to a couple kids, crashed my bike and skinned one of the my knees. Now limping and bruised, I continued biking the next 2.5 kms up the hill only to find both hostels closed. One of the owners mentioned that he thought there might be two hostels in Rio Verde (I had only seen one).

I headed back as light was beginning to fade. I asked again about a hostel, and the locals I talked to pointed me to the same one. I began wandering around town, and noticed a building that looked kinda like a hostel but without a sign. There was a man washing his car in front of the building and I asked him about it. Turns out he was just working on building a new hostel, and he had one room that was sort of ready. He showed me the room, dirty floor, mattress without sheets, windows covered with construction plastic. They quickly cleaned the room and gave me some 101 dalmatians bedsheets. It was perfect.

And so my day ended, 25 kms on bike, 10 kms on foot, 4 waterfalls, bruised, bleeding and exhausted, I would sleep in a barely constructed hostel in Rio Verde.

Thursday, January 6, 2011


I heard a pig screaming today.

I was at the traditional animal market in Saqsili. Every Thursday locals from the countryside flock to the Saqsili market to sell an assortment of animals - sheep, cows, pigs, llamas, alpacas. The market only takes place in the morning, so to get there, I caught a 3 am bus from the quaint mountain village of Chugchilan. Saqsili itself is a sprawling town. Small in our eyes, but large for the countryside. Sheltered by mountains and fields, the animal market takes place in a parking lot, crowded with vans and flatbed pickup trucks.

The air was rich with the sounds of sheep and cows and pigs. Lone lambs would call out for the rest of their herds. In Quilotoa, I watched lambs find their herd, their calls echoing throughout the gorgeous volcanic lake until they found eachother, the lamb gracefully bounding down the mountain to return to its home. At the market, pigs would cry out as they tried to escape - their legs tied to posts or vans, or when they forced into a new truck for transportation to their buyer's village.

I had a quick breakfast at one of the vendors - cows, sheep, and llamas streaming by as I ate, and one of the vendors protested when a cow took a dump in front of her stall and the new owner just continued on by (someone came by to scoop it up in a little while). After breakfast, I walked around some more, making my way through the crowd of people and animals.

I heard an especially loud cry, and saw a pig with it's legs propped up and tied against a truck. Several people were gathered around. One of the locals had a knife and began to castrate the pig. At the end, you can see the blood smeared on their bands. But it was really the cry, the scream - piercing, shrill, and filled with feeling - that sticks with you. If you had any doubt before that pigs - known to be as intelligent as dogs - feel pain and emotion, you wouldn't now.

When I was in Sierra Leone, my security guard's dog, whom I came to see as my own, was "neutered" with a hot knife and iron. Doggie Doggie's cries reverberated throughout my house, and when he came out, he limped forward, head down, tail between his legs, blood staining his fur. I fed him some chicken to try to cheer him up.

As they led off the pig, it had a similar limp. He was lightly whipped by a rope to keep him moving, to who knows where.

Dogs are pets. Pigs are food. What a cruel twist of fate.

Monday, January 3, 2011

On familiarity

The road has a familiar feel to it. Almost every country I go to, the same motifs repeat themselves. Wandering around old colonial cities, finding hole-in-the-wall restaurants to break bread with locals, avoiding the tourist and gringo hotspots. The long, smelly bus rides to local attractions. The hikes through cloud forests like Mindo, the chats with locals, and the beaming faces of kids when you juggle for them. The poverty seems the same as well. Rolling hills covered with shacks, the dirty hands and faces of street children begging for handouts, the indigenous women selling various trinkets and their young children playing around them in the cold crisp night air. The elderly men and women wearing age with deep, beautiful wrinkles that we fight so passionately in the West.

Today, I left Quito and headed to Latacunga, a small-city and gateway to some of the hiking and mountain biking in the Andes. Sheltered by nearby volcanoes, the town hosts a sprawling, dirty local market. Various games of street volley ball take place, with crowds gathering when old, hardened veterans take up a game, or when fresh, untalented gringos like myself join in. Unlike many markets, Latacunga's isn't built for tourists but locals, and during my time there, I didn't see another white face. Being a stranger in this world, felt familiar to me.

In Quito, after visiting the Old City, I spent my first night wandering around the Mariscal Sucre, or the new town part of Quito. Tourists throng around the area of La Mera and Reina Victoria with glitsy bars, Western music and restaurants. I watch a local vendor in the middle of the plaza. Her young child runs in circles around her, dancing to the pop and hip-hop tunes blasting from the nearby bar.

It's odd how people travel so far to surround themselves with the same scenery as back at home. In the quest for the exotic, we reveal how wedded we are to the familiar.

But I suppose I'm doing the same. Perhaps it's stranger in my case, that being alone on the road, that being an outsider feels the most familiar of all.

Tomorrow I head to Quilotoa for three days of hiking around a volcanic lake and to remote, mountain villages. Tomorrow, I take a familiar path.

On dogs and children

I ate today at Latacunga's local market at a line of street vendors. Two empanadas, one tostadas, carne, pollo y roz feast for $1.70. A variety of disheveled dogs wander around the market searching for food. It's a common sight in the developing world. Packs of dogs in Sierra Leone would mill around at night, sometimes forcing you to chase them away when they became too aggressive. Sometimes simply begging for morsels to eat - their dirty, unkept look a stark contrast to their well-groomed counterparts back at home. Sometimes you see abandoned puppies wandering the streets or beaches alone, and devouring the scraps of fish and chicken you would toss their way. Before resting at your feet, their tiny bellies bulging from the unusually generous meal.

In Latacunga, one skinny black dog stood out. His hair clung together in the chilly downpour. His worn ears, hanging like rags, dripping with the cold water trickling down from the heavens. His broken leg dragging precariously behind him as if it was about to fall off and join the rest of trash strewn throughout the marketplace.

I cut off a piece a piece of meat and tossed it to him when he came close. He eagerly gobbled down the meat and the remaining bones from my plate.

It took me only a few moments to remember the children going hungry nearby. Wandering the market with a similar purpose.

Friday, December 31, 2010

A prelude and reflection - Part II: Cynics and cynicism

A little more than a year ago, I was around Penn Station heading home late at night. There was a group of people along one of the mostly abandoned streets. I looked to see what they were staring at, and I saw a man standing over a smaller guy, beating him. The guy on the ground didn’t have a shirt on; his pants were down to his knees, revealing his blue boxers. He had his hands up, cowering under each blow.

There must have been close to twenty people watching nearby.

At first, I just continued walking. I was tired and it was close to finals for school.

After a few steps, I stopped myself. I went up to someone and asked if he had called the cops. He laughed.

I dialed 911, and told the dispatcher what was happening. She asked whether I saw a weapon, and I said I didn’t. The beating continued as I described the scene. After a few moments, I heard sirens in the distance. The guy managed to briefly escape and began stumbling down the street with the other man chasing him. People laughed.

The cops arrived and began pursuing them. I continued my walk home.

I was struck then by how easy it was to be a bystander.

After a devastating earthquake in China, the classical liberal and free-market economist Adam Smith reflected that injustice and suffering remains unanswered because we care more about our pinky finger than a million deaths. In his thought experiment, Smith argued we would still sleep soundly knowing a million people died that day. We would be much more “disturbed” by the thought of losing our pinky the next day, or of our sports team losing a game, or of failing a test. The death of millions could be shut out of our mind.

And it’s true that we’re only human. But maybe that sentiment is the problem. We use our humanity as an excuse. Instead of as a call to become better.

My blog is titled “What we will become tomorrow.” It is a quote from Paul Rusesabagina about his fellow Rwandans, who in the summer of 1994 picked up machetes and butchered and tortured and raped their neighbors in an orgy of violence orchestrated by the Hutu Power. Rusesabagina, who saved over a thousand from the genocide, reflected that the problem with his countrymen was you never knew what they would become tomorrow.

But Philip Gourevitch was right that this was also a hopeful sentiment in a way. If tomorrow is unwritten, if each day is in some imperfect sense a blank slate, then we can write on it what we wish. We can decide to be bystanders. Decide to passively go along with injustice, and ignore the injunction on the walls of the Holocaust Museum - “Thou shalt not be a bystander.” Or we can decide to work on our weaknesses and failings, and try to live up to the best in ourselves.

Perhaps it’s our cynicism that holds us back. But Greek Cynics were actually strong believers in self-improvement. First outlined by the philosopher Antisthenes in the late 5th century BCE, Cynics were skeptical about human nature; they were pessimistic about the selfishness and cruelty of man; they believed overcoming the worst in humanity was hard and difficult, but they weren’t “cynical.” Cynics believed that people could become better, and their philosophy was a testimony to that challenge. They believed in self-sufficiency and discipline, and achieving happiness through a life of virtue and harmony with nature. They believed that people could come to represent the best in humanity, if they were willing to be disciplined and work at it. In that sense, Cynics were optimists.

Most of us will work hard at our careers, our studies, and our hobbies, but we rarely devote the same energy, care, and discipline to the things that really matters. We don’t devote ourselves to studying the art of living, how to love better and stronger than before, how to better care for our family and friends, and how to be more empathic and kind.

All this is just my long-winded way of saying two things. First, we’re bystanders all the time. There is horror and suffering all around us, and we remain content to keep walking on by. Put it out of sight, and out of mind. Second, tonight I leave on another adventure. Just me and the open road. It can be a lonely path. Let’s hope this latest adventure is a journey as well.

Happy New Year.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

happy new year

A year ago I was in Phitsanoluk, Thailand, enjoying a local celebration with dancing and local Thai heavy metal bands. Two years ago I was in Dogon Country in Mali, watching a traditional dance and drinking millet beer, which was being passed around in calabashes all night long.

This year I’m in Oaxaca, Mexico. The celebrations have been going on for several days with the Zocalo and the square in front of the gorgeous baroque style cathedral filled with dancing, music, and street performers throughout the night. On New Year’s eve, a large fireworks display, standing some twenty to thirty feet tall, was set up in front of Santo Domingo (the most beautiful church in Oaxaca). The full moon had slowly risen up over the façade of the church, its brilliant silvery orb illuminating the nearby clouds. The firework display was lit from the bottom, and then whole thing went up and changed shape and form as they burned through, until it reached the top and set a wheel spinning, sending bursts of light and color in every direction.

At the Zocalo, my group of friends and I grabbed some mezcal (the local drink, made from the same agave plant as tequila but distilled in a different way). At midnight, locals tossed thunderous fireworks in the plaza near the cathedral, the boom echoing throughout the zocalo. My Austrian friend, Nalie, taught me the basic steps of the Austrian waltz, so she could celebrate in her traditional way. After the celebration, we went to a nearby bar and got some local beers on the rooftop terrace overlooking Santo Domingo.

We went back around 3 am. As we walked back, we passed some of the local street vendors and accordion players that had been there since morning. They still sat on the street corners. Their children sat next to them, heads buried in their knees or hands, trying to grab some sleep. A few young children, maybe 5 or 6, lay wrapped in blankets next to their parents, trying to keep warm as the cold night air descended on the city. The accordion music echoed throughout the cobblestone streets.

That afternoon, sitting in Santo Domingo, I had read Borges’ story about the lottery in Babylon. The protagonist had been omnipotent and a slave; he had been poor and rich, based on the Company’s lottery. As had everyone else. The lottery evolves into a parable on the capriciousness of life, where death and life, fortune and failure is subject to little more than a roll of the dice.

Harvey Dent, in the graphic novel Arkham Aslyum, once reflected, gazing at a full moon through the bars of Arkham. “The moon is so beautiful. A big silver dollar flipped by god. And look it landed scarred side up. So he made the world.”

I don’t agree with Dent’s cynicism. It’s not true. At least, not for everyone.