the media skews us yet again.

I always get so frustrated with the media.  I always hated the media for the following reasons: 1. It skews our perception on what’s important news, whether it’s blowing a story out of proportion or incessantly jabbing on about idle celebrity gossip as if reporting what kind of toothpaste the second coming of Jesus used on his first day on Earth.  2.  It tears apart celebrity lives.  3. It skews how children and young adults perceive themselves and the lives they should be leading.  4. It exposes what I would often consider sensitive information to anyone who can get ahold of the articles or clips, this including reports on military strategy or even problems that are weakening the country (and thereby making them more easily targeted).  5. It often publishes photos of people suffering, dying, and crying which are completely personal.  6. I don’t care if you enjoy journalism, I still think it’s selfish to make personal gains on articles that “expose the truth” i.e. get you a higher ranking and plaster such private moments over everyone’s front page.  7. Sometimes, it just plain old reports a topic miserably and inaccurately, such as the skewed article that recently described the recording of the Daily Show mascot issue and how the non-Indians were “attacked”, defending them.  And now the media drives me even crazier because there are so many fake articles circulating and people blowing up over false alarms, like the one about Facebook beginning charges for its services in November.

Well, there’s a good, recent example of the media skewing our perceptions on current issues:  The Ebola outbreak.  IT’S IN THE USA OMG WHAT WILL WE EVER DO.  I get it, it’s bad.  People are dying.  Unfortunately, this is Mother Nature sending us to our rooms without dinner.  You think this is bad?  I’m confident it’s about to get a hell of a lot worse over the next century, and I don’t mean in terms of Ebola.  I mean all kinds of pandemonium.  But that’s okay, just keep living your “modern” life and leave the future up to the hands of the future.  That’s the American way.  Live in the now, take all that you’re entitled to and whatever else you can snag up.  I’m not even sure we can’t get through the next century without blowing each other off the face of the planet with weapons of mass destruction – but that’s not my point.  My point is that indeed this Ebola spiel is not what the media is making it out to be.  Yes, Ebola is also an RNA virus which spreads at a faster rate than Influenza, but its R0 (R-naught) value is actually fairly low.  It’s lower than HIV and way, way, way lower than Measels.  With one or two cases in the US, ones which have been brought here by volunteers in Africa, those have been well contained.

And that’s the key, really – containment.  I’m so saddened by this epidemic because of my many friends in Benin, Togo, and Mali.  I lived a short time in Ouidah just last year.  But that means I’ve seen first-hand the porosity of the international borders.  I literally walked across the border into Togo.  It took a few minutes to present my Yellow Card (to prove I’ve had a yellow fever shot) and to get my visa stamped into my passport.  I got my credentials checked on the Beninese side, then I passed through a door beside the car gateway to have the Togolese police take my currency, represent the money I paid with postage-like stamps, and place their signed seal over the visa.  On the other side of the border, it was a chaotic mumbo-jumbo of women in colorful cloth and head wraps, hacking coconuts open and peddling bananas off as people ran back and forth across the road.  Yes, in West Africa you carpool.  I literally would stand on the roadway between Nigeria and Togo near the Kpasse market in Ouidah and flag a car down.  Actually, I usually asked someone to do it for me.  When a non-black flags down a car, everyone rushes to try to rip them off.  When a black person flagged one for me, I could haggle the price with someone who may not have stopped to get an overpriced deal.  I would jump into the back and keep moving left, left, left…to fit more and more passersby as we progressed towards wherever we were going.  I’m telling you this to demonstrate the relaxed situation over there.  Yeah, I would get yanked out of the car at random police barriers and have my credentials checked, but they were just looking for non-Africans who they might be able to bribe.  Rarely did they do much policing.  Once we got to a country border, it was a chaotic scramble to get the passengers to pick up visas by foot and cars driving through the gate to pick people up on the other side.  When I went to Lome, I actually traded vehicles at the border.  The driver asked to split my fee with his friend.  Rattling, smoking clunkers would roll past us with 20 feet of bundles and bananas on top – and sometimes people – and up to 15 people crammed into small vans.  Oh, when in Africa.

Ebola is spreading rapidly in West Africa.  It’s spreading because of the porosity as I’ve described.  It’s spreading because people don’t have the same sanitation as we do in the USA.  That doesn’t mean the places are absolutely disgusting, not at all.  It’s just not so freaking sterile either.  Lome was actually probably the worst I’d seen.  It had sanitation systems, but the streets were backed up with trash.  I literally walked across a field of piles of burning trash on my way to see some soccer matches at the University.  Benin is a skinny country, just like Togo, so the short trip to Lome already put me within sight of the country of Ghana.  And a lot of the people out there, especially more rural peoples, have some fears of the incoming doctors.  Treatment isn’t that easy, even with the supplies.  Keeping everything sanitary is surely another horror.  And living in Ouidah, Voodoo capital of West Africa, I saw firsthand how very unsanitary practices can contribute to the spread of diseases.  While Ouidah villagers throw carcasses into the street and sell rotting animals for witchcraft spells, other groups of people are also known to wash dead bodies as tradition.  So what would make an Ebola-plagued body any different?

Yet probably the final sad thing about the way the media is reporting this outbreak is the complete neglect Cameroon is getting.  Again, I fear for my friends.  I’ve been to Cameroon twice now, having spent a total of maybe 3 or so weeks in rural reaches of the country.  The rural areas have a much more sterile feel, unless of course you walk through the market area where the trash accumulates or if you walk through the actual market day where what my group would call “fish that looks way too much like fish” and chopped-in-half goats would be lying out in the sun, accumulating masses of flies.  Yes, you could be standing in the beignet booth and be overcome by the stench of ruminating death.  But EBOLA EBOLA EBOLA – oh wait, 80 Nigerians at a camp died in Cameroon from cholera?  There’s an outbreak of that TOO spreading around?  Yeah, no one’s hearing about it.  Why is that?  It’s not “cool” enough or there’s too much to report on for Ebola?  Can’t divert the audience’s attention?  I don’t know, you could also run a story on “the end of the world”, portraying the two epidemics as wiping out Africa and coming thirstily for our continent.  Oh, and I’m sick of seeing pictures of these suffering people.  Does no one else feel bothered by it?  How would you feel if you were the front page story??

That’s just my lunchtime rant.  I’ll be thinking of my friends in those four countries.

The Meaning in Dreams.

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Growing up, my mom and my grandma would always ask me about my dreams. Whether they were good, bad, or just plain profound, I would tell them if something stood out to me the next day. There were days when my dreams were dictated by medication, including a series of horrifying nightmares I experienced during my few weeks in India when I switched to a different kind of malaria pill.

I was always amazed by how progressive my family seems to be, yet certain things stick in the mud like a stubborn twig. Things like my grandma’s insisting that owls are a sign of death, my dad yelling at me for speaking ill of my brother when I saw a raven, or the way my family dwells on dreams. I’ve always felt like dreams are just a subconscious moment of clear thinking, kind of like an innocent child creatively experiencing the world or like those moments when you can’t solve a math problem and walk away from it, only to solve it when you’re not thinking about it. But maybe there is something more to it? I do, after all, own an old, large book of palm reading, tarot cards, and dream interpretation.

I do listen to my thoughts and my dreams. I find myself convinced that it keeps me out of trouble, or even death. Like when I leave the house late and my mom says “It was for a reason; something would have happened if you were on time.” Well, once a drunk driver collided head-on going the wrong way down the Turnpike a few miles ahead of me. I think that really got me thinking from then on.

But dreams?

I know a lot of friends would reject my subconscious theory and rationale. They would say it is undoubtedly god speaking to us, showing us what he wants to see. I just have a hard time believing god really cares that much about the bajillions of people here that he sits with them every night and orchestrates their dreams within their respective time zones and sleeping schedules. Wouldn’t it be easier just to sit back and watch? I mean, most people probably forget their dreams anyway.

Last night I had an unusually frustrating dream. My family and I flew to London for a week. I had just gotten back from London (true story), but I was eager to go to the White Cliffs of Dover and also to the northern most point of Scotland. We sat around in this large, modern apartment, staring out at the glass windows for several days, not leaving, before I finally said something. My mom insisted it wasn’t a big deal, we could see London from the living room. I looked out and, sure enough, I could see the London Eye turning and Big Ben not far from that.

My brother was playing games on his computer. I’m not even sure what my dad was doing – if anything. Every time I tried to suggest leaving, they’d ignore me and say that my brother had stuff to get done. But then they’d let him keep playing games.

“Mom, let’s walk to the train station. I have London so well memorized around the Thames that I can get us to Dover in no time.” (true story)

“Okay, fine, we will get ready and go to Dover.”

I wait for a few hours and it is getting dark.

“Mom, if we don’t go now, it will be dark and we can’t see anything.”

“We can go tomorrow.”

“Then we can’t go to Scotland, too!”

“Calm down, it’s no big deal.”

“I didn’t pay for airfare to come to London for a week and sit inside this room!”

And we never went anywhere. It got dark, I could see the blue Eye, and I couldn’t leave. I couldn’t even run away.

I think I know what my dream was telling me.

First of all, my mom mentioned grandma talking about a trip to Australia. I was surprised yesterday that the flights are cheaper than the ones I’m buying to go back to West Africa in less than two months. That’s why I was dreaming about our family traveling. London was always on my mom’s list.

The apartment. I think that’s how I feel about a lot of people, that they’re just idling, watching the world through protective glass, never going outside of their comfort zones. Suffocating in their Bell Jars. Thinking this is as good as it gets, that text book pictures and stories come even close to representing the real thing. And that’s definitely not what it’s like.

The imprisonment. I think I feel imprisoned often by the restraints my parents have always placed on me, whether it is in my athletics or in my travels, whatever. They were shutting down my idea of going somewhere, doing something crazy. I always feel like, if I listened to them, I would be idle, I would be stuck living the same old, conventional, rural Pennsylvanian life. Maybe I want that, but not without leaving it first. They just never tried to leave it at all. And they try to lock me in their norms.

The computer. This is two-fold. One, I was surprised when my mom recently made the comment “I can’t believe you’re surviving without Wi-Fi”. I thought it was sarcastic. Since when did my mom rely on the Internet? She just got a laptop and an e-mail address not that long ago. It’s not like she ever needed it. I didn’t even know she understands half of what she tries to do on it. And, yes, work makes me dependent on Internet, but not like that. Two, this DEFINITELY reflected my attitude on my family’s treatment of me versus my brother. He is more important, he can do what he wants. I can only do what I want if I damn well do it myself. They’ll dish out the money for him to do something stupid and useless and which doesn’t help his career. Meanwhile I’m actually working and trying to live life. Give me a break.

So – let’s look at this two ways:

1. Subconscious, pure thoughts: Does this mean I truly feel this way? Or is this where the imagination part kicks in and starts making me dream up situations for self-pity? Could it be that my views from this dream are really what I’m facing in my daily life?

2. God’s thoughts in my head: If there’s a god putting these ideas there, what is he trying to tell me? I don’t see a way for me to appreciate anything from that dream, unless I’m supposed to appreciate being able to say “I’m in London” – I think not. Is he trying to make me realize the differences between me and my family? I have no idea.

But I enjoy dreams. They are stories I write without trying to write them, and look at all the symbolism I subconsciously conjure up!

Avoid Being a Critic.

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As I struggle to understand the world around me as well as my own emotions and role, I realize how often I judge people in my mind.  You would think that the more I discover about humanity, the more I would come to dislike people who go against the grain of what I think is the right way to live.  On the contrary, it’s been quite the opposite.

I used to be haughty and swing around the opinions I’d been raised on like some kind of righteous sword without even having a cause for why I felt that way.  It was strictly due to my environment.  Moving away from home – and then eventually traveling independently – gave me the priceless ability to view myself from the outside.  And I didn’t like what I was seeing.

It’s too easy to get caught up in the toxic wave of judgment.  Someone says one thing, a few people nod in agreement, no one wants to be “that guy” who stands up and protests.  It’s important to remember people come from different backgrounds, experiences, comfort zones, and beliefs – and all of those things drastically influence their actions and choices.  Even if something seems wrong to you, that person might not be viewing it in the same way.

Let me take a very simple example:
When I was living in Ouidah, Benin in West Africa this time last year, it was perfectly ordinary to walk out onto the street from my compound to swarms of children with outstretched hands.  They would chant “Yovo!  Yovo!’ on account of me being a foreigner with lighter skin.  They would sing “Yovo, yovo, bon soir!  Ca va bien, merci!” without even knowing what they were saying.  They would then tug at my dress and beg for a “cadeau”.  The parents would chuckle and watch.  Yes, these children were taught to racially discriminate and demand money, to disregard personal space, and to taunt.  That’s at least how some people saw it and it angered them.  They’d spit out mean words and curse at the children.  I just smiled and played along, rarely given out any francs.  These kids were raised to believe this is how you treat people, this is how you survive.  And there’s nothing wrong with that because that is how they survive.  That’s how those kids get the coins they need to go to the Internet café.  Some of them probably give the change to their mom, and that’s how they have bread for dinner.  No harm done.

Probably the hardest part in avoiding being a critic, for me at least, has been realizing not everyone is so determined to live righteously.  Some people choose to just live and get by within the common rules.  They don’t strive to find some inner-peace or to travel the world or discover themselves.  They’re content like that.

I used to hate that.  I used to resent that and call it being lazy, selfish, stubborn…but really, it’s a choice.  In fact, I preach so much that morality is just a human-made concept in order to function in an optimal society – that we are really just animals.  So isn’t that perspective more animalistic?  I guess so…I just couldn’t see it before.

I think I always just wanted the best for myself, and then to see the best in others and help them bring it out.  It’s a tough line to walk, but there is a point when your suggestions should stop before intervention.  I see it between me and my peers, the ones who don’t say they’re inspired by my ambition and who continue with the same mundane life they grew up into.  The ones who don’t move or don’t try to make changes.  I’ve got to let them decide for themselves; they’ve already seen the things I have done and how those things have helped me.

So before you’re hasty at judging someone, consider why you’re doing it and why you think you’re better for what you do.  You might find you don’t have a legitimate reason after all.  You might realize you should remain a worst critic to only yourself, and I think you’ll be a better person for it.

4 Reasons Why Overseas Volunteer Projects are a Waste of Time

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Shanties on a US reservation, no better than houses I’ve seen in rural India or West Africa and unfathomably worse than donated facilities at the Nuevo Paraiso mission project in Honduras.

It seems like, growing up, the cool thing for kids to do who went to my fancy private school was to be sent off by their parents on some overseas volunteer project in a third-world country.  I never did anything like this until college, mostly because my mom always shot the idea down.  I never fully understood her reasons until I went on a trip of my own and began reevaluating such overseas volunteer projects.  I decided that I agree with my mom.  The only people these trips really benefit are the travelers themselves, giving them something to put on their resumes.  And although the benefits operate on a case-by-case basis, it is my experience and observations that suggest how these projects are often just a waste of time.  I will outline my reasons below:

1. GIVING OUT FISH.
My family strongly believes in the motto: “Give a man a fish, he eats for a day; teach a man how to fish, he eats for life.”  I’ve grown up knowing that expression and beginning to see the truth behind it.  Although my parents use that approach in their political views and anti-welfare standpoints, I see how this fish comparison directly relates to volunteer projects.  It’s easy to give a monetary donation and let someone else handle what happens to the money.  That’s obviously no way to help an impoverished community.  But too often we are still transfixed on materialistic things to improve an entire village.  Why save up money to go build a building?  Most of these communities have all the resources they need to build a building that suits their needs.  Why not lend a physical hand instead?  Why not teach and do less of handing these people supplies and new, shiny things?  Give them all of these donations and the only thing they’ll think is “Wow, Americans have nice, fancy things.  When I grow up, I want to get out of here and go somewhere where these things can be handed to me.”  Not only does handing out fish not allow these people to fix themselves, it encourages them to seek out where they can be handed more fish and prevents them from fixing their old mistakes.  Indirectly, it could also cause communities to disband and lose culture as the younger generations with more potential greedily seek out a life outside of their community for shiny things they don’t need.  And I’m not just making up a hypothesis; it is a serious issue I learned about while on some community projects this summer in rural India.

2. BROKEN THINGS THAT STAY BROKEN.
When I signed up for Engineers Without Borders, I though, Gee, this is cool – I get funded to travel to a really unique place and practice both my French and engineering skills!  The experience helped land me a job and gave me some real world perspective on what life is like in West Africa.  But my trip to Cameroon benefitted myself more than it did the community.  We spent endless weeks organizing, building, delivering, preparing, teaching,…all to end up with empty wallets and a failed system.  We visited a nearby project similar to ours: a solar panel-powered well system installed by the University of Delaware.  What did we find?  An empty water tank at the top of a hill next to a school.  Why was there no water pumping up here?  We found the lower pump where a few kids were squeezing out the only drops they could get.  Why was there not even water at the taps with the greatest hydraulic head?  My colleague found the answer: the solar panels were coated in weeks worth of red, Cameroonian mountain dust.  No one had been cleaning the panels, despite clear instruction from the volunteers to do so.  Back at our own project, we even set up a committee dedicated to clean the panels once a week.  You would think that a quick cleanse isn’t much to ask from a slower paced, rural community, but even our village had to provide an incentive by offering weekly pay to the volunteer.  When I returned to the States and shared my story with my friends, my best friend gave me a link to a video that discussed exactly how EWB projects are inevitable failures.  There is no water coming out a year later.  All of this money and time, and for what?  Why is this happening?  The answer is multi-faceted, having its roots in my fish theory.  Plus, things that break in these rural communities often stay broken.  Why?  Well, what resources are there to fix them?  To fix these projects that are not the standard way of life?  What motive is there to gather the information and to find a way to bring back something that these villages have survived for thousands of years without?  And that brings me to my third point…

3. DON’T FIX WHAT’S NOT BROKEN.
Why are Americans so in love with themselves that they think their way of life is the solution to the planet’s suffering?  The wasteful, materialistic American way of life is not only greedy and corrupt, but it could easily be contributing indirectly to the suffering of these remote areas.  The environmental impacts of our decisions in the States causes a global reaction that can directly impact the weather conditions and water cycles of these victimized areas.  Still, they thrive the way they have known to thrive for thousands of years.  Throughout history, ancient civilizations have survived and thrived without the assistance of outsiders.  In fact, if anything, these outsiders have obliterated these civilizations before ever significantly impacting them in a positive fashion.  For example, think about the situations in America.  All of the tribal peoples who have lost their identity and land.  All because we think the way we live is the right way?  The sophisticated way?  Go to West Africa and you will see a collage of old and new.  People living in huts who have cell phones.  Why is that?  Well, they want to take advantage of the best of both worlds the best that they can.  But, at the same time, not everyone wants to jeopardize their old ways of life.  It’s what they know.  It’s their comfort zones.  It’s how they have evolved to believe they should live.  I’ve had countless political arguments with sheltered people and friends who felt that invading countries and transforming their governments was the correct solution to everything, but is it really?  Is our government system really the answer?  Is it our business to decide that for anyone but ourselves?  How do we know that we’re right?  I’ve seen first hand how these “less fortunate” people actually believe we’re the unfortunate ones, leading stressful lives and answering to people we hardly know, not understanding anymore what living is or how to appreciate life.  But it’s not just how their systems aren’t broken but how we try to fix them and break them to pieces.  How we strip people of culture.  Perhaps the worst offender of such things is religious cleansing.  I am absolutely opposed to mission trips and anything that operates in another community by the “light of God”.  Can’t people do good things for the sake of life, living, and kindness?  Why is religion attached to any good notion when religion is in fact the cause of so much evil?  So much war?  I see people going to Africa every year on “mission trips”, and all I can think is I hope you feel good about yourself when you shove Bibles down these poor peoples’ throats and rob them of any cultural identity they used to have.  Why not teach them how to read and write?  So they can buy books and learn the newest herbal medicinal discoveries or how to fix their water issues naturally and without the use of energy and pumps?  This religious debacle leads me to my last reason…

4. HELP YOURSELF BEFORE YOU HELP OTHERS.
Even airlines tell you this before your plane leaves the runway.  While we are so transfixed with being the heroes to people in communities that will never remember our names once we have parted, why don’t we take a look at our own country?  And I don’t mean just soup kitchens and giving handouts to homeless people who continue to drink away their handouts.  I mean the thing that I’m most passionate about: poverty on the reservations.  It’s not because I’m biased because my grandfather is Indian and it’s my focus of work.  It’s because I strongly believe America is responsible for the situation it’s created.  You can’t invade a territory, take over completely from peoples who you don’t even acknowledge as people, set up a system familiar only to the invaders and only at the advantage of said invaders, and then expect the natives to thrive.  That’s just it; they weren’t expected to thrive.  They weren’t considered people, they were murdered without consequences, and they weren’t even accounted for on the census rolls until tribal counts were created.  By that time, most of the less powerful tribes were wiped out or assimilated to a different culture anyway.  The territorial borders kept pushing back, tribes were hit with European clothes, weapons, alcohol, and Bibles, all in an effort to strip them of their identity if not kill them off altogether.  The answer to this problem, when peaceful terms were supposedly going to be met, was to shove these peoples onto a hodge-podge of lousy land parcels called “reservations”.  That was no solution, but everyone seemed to “roll with it” until the Dawes Act sparked up in the late 1800s and unconstitutionally revoked the rights of thousands of American people – American Indian people.  What efforts have been made since to right these wrongs?  A similar wronging was in the African-American slave industry around the same time.  That dispute divided our whole nation until it was resolved and, although we still have racial issues, the States made an enormous effort to right its wrongs.  Can you say that about the native people to whom this land really belonged?  Whose voices aren’t being heard despite their protests?  As an example, Gilmour Academy near my university (and where several of my friends went) sends students annually to Honduras on a mission trip.  Ignoring the fact that it’s a mission, can we ask ourselves why these people are spending thousands of dollars for the glory of assisting (handing fish) to people in a remote, foreign village that will likely stay broken?  One that maybe wasn’t all that “broken” to begin with?  One that actually used to be full of native peoples that were conquered by the Spaniards?  But we’re continuing to perpetuate that wrong as a right by influencing our western ways on the rural populations?  And if the reason of choosing that location is solely based on the poverty level in Honduras being under 50%, have we stopped to consider that a few of the largest Indian reservations in the US with a majority of the native population is in fact exceeding that level of poverty?  Within our own borders?  Okay, so South Dakota or the desert in Utah maybe isn’t as “cool” as Honduras to visit…but is it a volunteer trip or a vacation?  Spend your money wisely.  Don’t blow $1000 on airfare to fix a problem that doesn’t concern you.  10 students’ airfare to go to Honduras could send multitudes more in a workforce to address the issues in our own country.

So there you have it, my rant for the day: how overseas volunteer projects don’t teach a village anything life-changing, how they have a tendency to be short-lived, how they aim to fix things that may not be considered a problem internally, and how they take our attention away from our own neighbors suffering.  I’m sure there are plenty of people who think differently but, until I see some serious changes within our own country and in these overseas projects to be more economical and sustainable, I see no reason to advocate my opinions in anyone else’s favor.