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This is not a travel blog.

And yet, I would be remiss not to share some photographs of my recent travels throughout Turkey, an incredibly beautiful country.

We explored the country from distant Cappadocia – with its fairytale mountains and chimneys and ancient monasteries looking straight out of another planet – to Izmir, where we walked beside the coast and touched the Aegean Sea.  Izmir captured my heart and reminded me of California. The weather was warm, the food was delicious, and the views were incredible. Izmir is wine country, and filled with rolling hills, greenery and truly spectacular sunsets. We went to Selcuk, the small town of Sirince (known for its delicious fruit wines), and most incredibly the ancient ruins in Ephesus and Hierapolis. We also soaked in the mud baths of Pammukale and enjoyed the breathtaking views after climbing up the cold cold travertines. It was a challenge, no doubt, but absolutely worth it to feel truly on top of the world.

And finally – Istanbul. Filled with cats and delicious tea and nargile, this city by the water is incredibly beautiful, dotted with mosques especially in the sunset. The city (and country) has amazing mosques filled with intricate detail, and layers upon layers of history – from the Romans to the Greeks to the Ottoman empire. It is truly a magical meeting place where East collides with West. The sunset on the Istanbul skyline is truly incredible, the people are so hospitable and kind, the food and drinks are so tasty.

What an incredible place.

IMG_3784Incredible views of Cappadocia

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IMG_3846Views of Cappadocia from Goreme Open Air Museum

IMG_3918Many lanterns are made out of carving and decoration on gourds in Cappadocia.

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IMG_4310You can’t beat the sunsets in Turkey, and this was no exception. Sunset over Pigeon Valley in Cappadocia.

IMG_4240Visiting Selime Monastery near Cappadocia was a surreal experience.  An ancient monastery nestled in such interesting rock formations and mountains. Can’t be beat.

IMG_4074Walking through an ancient city in the Ihlara Valley.

Lots of delicious food and drink in Turkey.  Some of my favorites: mezes (various appetizers), sahlep (a warm, creamy winter drink), moussaka, and of course – lots of Turkish apple tea (çay) and baklava.

IMG_4381Views of the Aegean Sea near Ephesus, Turkey. Simply stunning.

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There are so many cats everywhere around Turkey. Truly adorable and a joy for all cat lovers!

IMG_4585The ancient ruins of Ephesus. Simply amazing.

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IMG_4753 1Views of Pammukale, hot springs and cold travertines. An amazing natural formation.

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IMG_4816 1A breathtaking view of the ancient city of Hierapolis – after you climb up high in Pammukale.

The very picturesque small town of Sirince – known for its excellent fruit wines. Blueberry, Blackberry, Strawberry – you name it. Quite refreshing and delicious.

IMG_4854View of city of Selcuk from atop Ayasuluk Castle.

IMG_4867St. John’s Basilica in Selcuk.

IMG_4878Ayasuluk Castle, Selcuk

And of course – the bustling, beautiful city of Istanbul, dotted with its mosques.

IMG_5444The fisherman on Galata bridge, at night.

Happy 2015 everyone!

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This March, I had the incredible fortune of going to Kenya for a week, and had an absolutely wonderful time. The country is beautiful, picturesque and vibrant. Things are constantly changing and developing with the country’s new Constitution and decentralization process, and there is a sense of hope, possibility and optimism. It was an amazing time to visit the country. I wanted to share a few pictures!

2014-03-23 09.50.33-1Church in Nairobi on a Sunday.

2014-03-17 18.57.24A visit to the Supreme Court – a new and dynamic institution in itself.

2014-03-18 12.01.52Visits to iHub, an awesome space for tech startups and social enterprises to grow.

2014-03-19 15.02.14Public artwork in Nairobi; a city with many architectural and artistic gems.

2014-03-19 15.37.58Another view of the church in downtown Nairobi.

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2014-03-20 13.16.06Some enlightening conversations with non-profits providing access to legal services and medical services to survivors of rape and domestic violence in and around Kibera. Amazing work is being done expanding women’s access to justice in a critical time of need.

2014-03-20 13.47.04PAWA254: a space for artists and activists to gather, work & collaborate. Beautiful!

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2014-03-21 09.13.47Overlooking the Great Rift Valley on our way out of Nairobi. Such an amazing place.

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Kenya (March 2014)David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage!

2014-03-16 15.23.52Safari in Nairobi National Park!

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2014-03-21 15.11.43Waterfall in Lake Nakuru National Park

2014-03-21 17.57.09Ending with a surreal, ethereal sunset boat ride over Lake Naivasha.

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Anyone who visits Salone in the rainy season will inevitably remember the country’s color as green – a vivid, lush, and verdant landscape broken up by the contrasting deep reddish copper color of the dirt roads that wind through the most isolated villages, and by the dry yellow of huts built from sticks and thatch. My memories of the summer months will forever be imbued with the sound of rain pounding heavily on the zinc roof of my room, the taste of roasted corn and coconut water sold by roadside vendors, and the thrilling but absolutely terrifying okada [motorcycle] rides whizzing through the countryside. The way the weather cools off in the rain, leaving me almost chilly during my morning bucket baths of cold water. The beautiful ride over the breathtaking Sewa river that borders my village.

 I don’t intend to romanticize rural poverty. Certainly, those moments of beauty I observe and appreciate also inevitably contain moments of heartbreak and devastation for Sierra Leoneans. While rural poverty may not appear, on its face, as harsh as life in the urban slums – surrounded as the villagers are by greenery, light, and open spaces devoid of congestion, refuse, and pollution – life remains painful underneath. Life expectancy is only 47 years, under-5 mortality is one of the highest in the world, and 53% of the population lives below $1.25 a day. There is nothing remotely romantic about the hard statistics, which only underscore the reality: life is tough, incredibly tough, for the rural poor in Sierra Leone.

Yet, for a stranger like me, passing through Salone for a brief two months, its hard to ignore the beauty of life here – from the breathtaking natural endowments of the country to the way each individual feels supported, and never truly alone or abandoned, by virtue of the survival of the village community.

And yet, the natural beauty leads to abuses – Sierra Leone, rich in natural resources, perpetually has been exploited by foreign investors and speculators willing to use locals as a means to an end. The civil war, between 1996 and 2001, was fueled in part by warlords financed by diamonds mined in Sierra Leone. Today, mining companies coming into rural communities to access diamonds or iron pay men extremely minimal wages to do backbreaking and often highly dangerous work. How much of the profits from mining go to improve Sierra Leone — and how much instead goes into the coffers of corporations and complicit government officials?

Exploitation of labor, amidst the backdrop of a breathtaking landscape. Singing, dancing, laughing, smiling – joy, in a place of poverty and lack of healthcare. The strong ties of community that leaves none behind – and yet, pervasive customs that impede women’s rights, abuses by traditional authorities, and interpersonal conflict exacerbated by these very community bonds. These are some of the contradictions of Sierra Leone.

How does one resolve these seemingly irresolvable incongruities?

Perhaps we cannot – but simply recognize that there are contradictions in our own lives, as well. In America, perhaps the wealthiest nation in the world, we die (less so now, thankfully!) – for lack of healthcare. In America, where women are CEOs and politicians, one in three women experience gender-based violence. In America, we have every modern convenience – but we still have people homeless on our streets. In America, we have Facebook, Twitter, and super-speed internet, but high rates of depression because perhaps, we have never been so alone.

There are contradictions everywhere, you see. So perhaps we are all not as different as appears on first glance. And as does not need to be said, even in places where exists poverty and violence, one can find incredible joy in connection, in dancing, singing and wholeheartedly embracing life. And yet – in a big city like New York – one can have every facet of modernity at his disposal, and still find himself profoundly and resoundingly – alone.

IMG_8536_2Boys playing (rather, posing) in Gondama, Sierra Leone

IMG_8579_2Women welcoming us to their community for a community meeting and legal awareness session

IMG_8279_2Boats used for sand mining along the Sewa River

IMG_8031_2View from the ferry between Lungi international airport and downtown Freetown

IMG_8042_2View from a house in Murray Town, Freetown

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Sierra Leone is quite firmly post-conflict, with the war soon receding into the space of distant memory. And yet, the wounds of the war still appear raw at times, at least directly beneath the surface, where anger and frustration seem simmering in a pot threatening to boil over once again.

The ghosts of wartime past still linger in conversations. One man tells me about fleeing the war and being forced to be a refugee in neighboring Guinea, Ivory Coast, and Liberia. Another young woman tells me that her father was killed in the war, leaving her family – a mother and nine children – even poorer and more alone. You can see the shadow of the war when passing bombed out buildings– relics of the past, slowly becoming overgrown with nature once again, and yet left to stand.

But perhaps more subtly, the specter of the war remains in daily human interactions. Working for a conflict resolution office, I spend the day resolving disputes. Perhaps most clearly, Sierra Leoneans are anything but passive. They are angry, argumentative, easily prone to shouting and bursts of indignation. They have quick tempers that flare up at the slightest touch.

Sierra Leoneans do not speak quietly. They project loudly, speaking with their hands, which move and gesticulate animatedly with every sentence. They yell, point, and pace, and even a trivial argument can sound deathly serious. Two women argue about which one of their children is taller – but you would think, from their tone of voice – that it is a life-and-death matter.

In our office all day, arguments erupt between husbands and wives, family members, and friends. Outside of work, children are ‘flogged’ violently for the smallest transgression, and upon my attempt to intervene, I am told it is for their own good – and that “These are African children, not American ones; they don’t listen! Besides, in school, they are flogged five times. I only flogged this one four times!” Often, I see husbands and wives hitting each other outside (in full view of the police station, of course – no action is likely to be taken by the officers, who continue to lounge on their front porch, eating boiled peanuts to their hearts’ content).

In America, our violence might be sinister – hidden behind closed doors, with only neighbors hearing shouts and shattered glass through thin walls. In Sierra Leone, the violence is often public, and unabashedly so. There is no shame in hitting your children – it’s ‘normal.’ A crowd of neighbors and interested parties gathers when spouses/partners have an argument, physical or verbal, and word spreads; soon the entire village is privy to differing versions of their fight, and blow-by-blow re-enactments. Gossip is rife; nothing is truly private or safe from prying eyes.

While domestic violence is prevalent, and women bear the brunt of the beatings, living in Sierra Leone has further shattered any lingering preconceptions I might have of women as passive victims, silently and tearfully bearing weighty burdens. Instead, they are just as loud as their husbands and brothers (sometimes more so). Fiercely spirited, women and girls are not afraid to march into our office and complain about domestic violence, spousal neglect, or debts they are owed. They assert their opinions and anger with utter confidence – with far more self-assurance than I personally have. While their husbands might have multiple wives and girlfriends – they too, often have affairs and extramarital relationships (often those too, however, are tainted by abuse, inequality, and lack of true choice). And when I witness their husbands hitting them in public, women just as often strike back, risking further abuse. This is not to say that gender inequity doesn’t exist; it is frighteningly pervasive, even enshrined in the legal right of men to have multiple and even unlimited wives under customary law and the right of men to divorce when their wives do not provide them with sexual pleasure. But it is only to further negate stereotypical portrayals of women, particularly those subject to sexual and domestic abuse.

And so, in Sierra Leone, my life seems to be shrouded by conflict, and by the end of the day I find myself exhausted and often overwhelmed by the tasks of resolving one dispute after the other. Work and ‘play’ seems to blur together. Living in the community, any conflict I witness merges into my ‘work,’ – a potential space for peaceful mediation and the intervention of the law.

And so it is that years after the end of the war, this work – of conflict resolution and access to justice – has never been more vital to the lives of the poor.

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Village life is slow, languid, and yet can involve backbreaking labor. Most villagers work in farming, selling/trading goods, or mining – Sierra Leone is known for producing gold and diamonds. As I pass by the river, I see families washing clothes, bathing – and sifting sand for gold. I ask a woman if she’s found anything; she shows me her mug and I manage to spot several bright specks of gold. I wonder how long she spent in the river, risking getting parasites and diseases, to find those specks, and how much they are worth.

With much of the country lacking electricity, the village is plunged into darkness every evening at about 7:30 pm. In my town, people retire to their homes or spend time in the “junction.” The junction, a crossroads at the point of the road to Bo, Sierra Leone’s second city, is the place to be. At all hours, the junction is filled with people and small shops selling fried doughnuts, bread, packets of clean water to drink, sweet and cold yogurt in different flavours, groundnut sauce, kola nuts, and gari (a couscous-like dish). Okada [motorcycle] drivers constantly pass by, and some wait around at the junction to recruit potential passengers to Bo for 4,000 Leones (5,000 Leones for the ‘white’ people). In the night, the junction is lively. All the roadside shops light up candles, giving the town a ethereal, almost beautiful, glow.  People mill around, chatting, buying supplies for the next day’s meal. Okada drivers have mostly finished their work for the day, so they head to the Bike Riders’ Association to relax (really, this is another roadside shack). Films play and you can watch for 500 Leones, and dance music is blasting from one stall or the other. Down the street, one of the local chiefs powers up his generator, blasts 90s American music, and drinks palm wine with his friends.

Life is slow, but this is not necessarily a positive thing. In this town, close enough to the more hectic and exciting pace of Bo city, youth are frustrated and tantalized by the opportunities. “We sit around all day, we sleep as much as we want, because we don’t have a job like you,” they tell me. “We don’t have anything to do all day, we don’t have enough work. We want to study further – maybe nursing – but we need money first.”

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Again and again, I encounter something I wish we had more of in the U.S.: community. In the U.S., I often find myself resorting to Twitter and social media because it is a way to connect and to feel connected; to feel part of a larger community where so often there is none. Here, there is still an immediacy to the connections, and they are all refreshingly physical. On my way to fetch water in the morning, I speak to neighbors and children who yell my name or call me poomoui [white person]. I greet them in Krio or Mende; How de morning? Or Be-ay-ee – asking how they slept. In turn, they laugh at the ‘white’ woman attempting to pump water and struggling in carrying the bucket back to her house, while even the little children here are experts on carrying huge buckets of water on their heads for long distances without dropping much. Walking to the junction should take 5 minutes but often takes more than 20, because of all the small greetings and conversations I must have along the way.

Throughout the day at work, I am surrounded by villagers, some of whom are acquaintances and others, whom I now call my friends. It is quite a strange sensation to help a client resolve his family law problem and discuss his child custody case in the office, and then later to count him as a friend and also my personal okada driver to and from Bo.

After work, I often head back to the junction and sit in one of the many small roadside shacks owned by my closest friend in town. Like most people in Sierra Leone, she does not know her age. Depending on the day, she could be 15 years old or 20. She is a member of the Fula tribe, originally from Guinea, and lives with her mother, her sister, and her sister’s children. Her father died earlier this year, and her entire family has had to cut back drastically; all of her siblings have been forced to drop out of school. Like many other Sierra Leoneans, she is still completing secondary school (as is her supposedly 21-year old sister) at the age of 20, because of many interruptions year-to-year. Next year, she hopes they can all return to school. My heart especially softens and saddens when I meet her youngest niece, who has a serious heart problem and needs surgery that she cannot obtain in Sierra Leone, nor afford abroad. I feel especially drawn to the young girl, who looks like a 4-year old although she is over 7 years old; she hasn’t grown because of her heart problem. I am especially saddened because the girl reminds me of myself – I had a heart surgery as a child, and am lucky enough to be alive today only because my family could afford the expensive procedure in India.

I sit in my Fula friend’s shack every evening as she and her friends tell me stories, teach me Krio, play Sierra Leonean and Nigerian music, and as her tiny nieces dance for me. I also greet passerbys who come to buy food, many of whom sit down and introduce themselves, yell ‘Paddy!’ (‘friend’ in Krio) at me while passing by, or ask me to take them to America with me. Sometimes, I take walks with my newfound friends to the former Liberian refugee camp in town, or to the bustling and high-quality MSF hospital further down the street.

Day by day, the people of Sierra Leone have won me over completely – my heart stolen by their open smiles and warm hearts. Every day, I am bombarded with requests for money, or visas to America, or for food. At the same time, I have encountered such kindness despite the pervasive poverty and lack of economic opportunity. Young men give me free okada rides back to my room from the ‘junction’ or the local court when it is raining. A teenager gives me a pair of her pants when I get completely drenched in the rain. She shares her food with me and insists on transferring Sierra Leonean music to my phone. Sierra Leone is not a country for introverts – every moment from morning to night involves conversation, dancing, and friendship. These daily interactions with Sierra Leoneans, where I learn more about their daily lives and am integrated into the fabric of it, have made my short time here truly unforgettable.

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The ferry from Lungi airport to Freetown

My flight was filled with aid workers, mostly middle aged white men, but also a few families with younger children. I wondered who they were working for, and why they were here. I saw a man working feverishly on a proposal for IrishAid Liberia; our plane was scheduled to head over to Monrovia after touching down briefly at Freetown.  The few Sierra Leoneans or Liberians aboard were outnumbered by their Western counterparts.

As I stepped off the flight at night, I was greeted by a blast of humid, hot air and complete darkness at 4 a.m. Sierra Leone, I marveled. I couldn’t believe I was actually here – my first time in sub-saharan Africa, despite studying transitional justice in Sierra Leone and Rwanda in my past life, as an undergraduate. Soon after, we began the process of attempting to get into Freetown, not a simple task because there is no road or bridge directly to the city – Lungi International Airport is separated from the rest of the city by a large expanse of water, the mouth of the Sierra Leone River. You have several options of getting into the city: a helicopter (which can be prone to crashing), an expensive water taxi, or the cheapest and probably safest, a ferry that comes at some point – you just never know exactly when.

 So, our journey involved quite a bit of sweaty nighttime waiting. Between 4 a.m. and about 10 a.m., we waited, chatting with our guide about his life growing up shuttling between Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea and the Ivory Coast – a refugee from one country’s war to another. Eventually, we headed over to the massive, rusting ferry, where we were met with more waiting – for people, cars, and everything in between to get on. Eventually, we were off – and in for a gorgeous, peaceful ride. On the way, we spoke to an older Sierra Leonean man who had recently returned from the U.S. – and had lived in Boston as well. He returned to his country, among other things, to start up a medical college. Excited by what was to come, we eagerly awaited our arrival into the city. Bright, colorful buildings dotted the landscape. Freetown looked beautiful from afar.

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Sierra Leone was founded in the aftermath of the slave trade’s abolition. Thousands of freed slaves were deposited in what is now Sierra Leone by British abolitionists, and established themselves with support from the British military. Somehow, this diverse group of freed slaves came together to create Sierra Leone.

 Today, Sierra Leone is one of the poorest countries in the world, often at the bottom of the list on human development and maternal mortality indicators. Even the capital, Freetown, has its share of breathtaking ocean views and beaches, but little in the way of modern shopping malls or high-rise buildings. Freetown has a few restaurants and shops powered by generators, a network of paved roads interspersed with dirt ones heading off the main road. Hip hop music blasts from roadside shacks and Nigerian films played at night attract large crowds of people trying to catch a glimpse. There is a state-owned electric grid, but electricity is touch-and-go, and running water is usually a distant dream – as we soon discovered. While in Freetown for a couple of days, our house had a breathtaking view of the sea, but no water or power.

 Life in Freetown, for most transplants from the village, is hectic, tiring, and frustrating. People are everywhere — though still, the city is far less crowded than India or Bangladesh. Dhaka, where I lived in last summer, had a population of almost 20 million. Sierra Leone’s entire population is less than 7 million. For me, even Freetown seemed refreshingly open and devoid of massive crowds. Still, it is the most crowded city in Sierra Leone. Hawkers, traders, and sellers are everywhere, and the roads are filled with cars, motorcycles, bicycles, and minibuses. As I walk from my house to downtown, I pass boys playing football and large landfills where trash is being burned. In the slums of Kroo Bay, people live squashed together in dwellings they have painfully erected. As Mark Weston writes in his excellent book documenting his travels throughout West Africa, “The Ringtone and the Drum,”

Ryszard Kapuscinski hailed slums as ‘the highest achievement of human imagination, ingenuity, and fantasy.’ Using nothing but tyres, corrugated iron, old car doors and bits of wire and wood, the Kroo Bay residents have constructed a small miracle spilling down the hill from the Cotton Tree to the sea. The walls of their tiny houses, fittingly known as pan-bodis, are made of patched together sheets of rusted zinc or iron…Fewer than six hundred of its eleven thousand residents have running water in their homes. None has a toilet…”

This is Freetown – a bustling, crowded city, a constant assault on the senses, full of young men trying to find work, cut off from the stronger sense of community provided by their villages. But the city speaks of opportunity – and so people come. They always will.

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2012, you taught me much. A year packed with many years worth of memories, changes, challenges and movements. I failed  dramatically in many of my goals — of which I set far too many, and dreamt too big. Yet, I learned a great deal.

In March, after visiting Harvard and falling in love, I sent in my seat deposit for law school with a tiny bit of apprehension and a huge amount of excitement. In April, after much planning and fretting, I left my job and traveled to California to volunteer with two non-profits I admired. I had a magical 6 weeks in California, until June when I packed up once again and headed to Dhaka, Bangladesh. For two months, I worked with BRAC’s legal empowerment program; it was my first long stretch in working on legal empowerment and women’s rights, and it taught me immeasurable amounts. I learned some difficult lessons: how hard it really is to work effectively in an international context (sickness, language barriers, and all that fun stuff!) and how much I had left to learn and improve. Bangladesh taught me far more than I gave to her, but in the end, I learned to embrace that, too. Despite the challenges, I still managed to come away inspired – not disillusioned, as I always fear. BRAC’s programs are so fantastic that it’s hard not to leave inspired and excited by the possibilities.

In August I traveled to India for two weeks to reconnect with my family. One of my favorite moments in India was reconnecting with cousins who I hadn’t seen in years, spending time at their home and better understanding the lives of contemporary middle-class Indian teenagers — which is not all that different from life for the average teen in the U.S. Lesson learned (especially worth remembering in light of the #DelhiGangRape attack, which has led to many – in my view – somewhat orientalist depictions of life for women in India). Then, I returned to the U.S., and packed up once again (this was a constant theme for much of  2012!).

In September, after a whirlwind orientation week and moving in to Cambridge, I started law school! I completed my first semester — though I failed to live up to my hopes and dreams, which admittedly were quite lofty for the first semester of law school. The semester was incredible, and different. After spending the past two years largely externally focused on social justice issues I cared about, this semester was internally focused – on myself and my studies. I was intellectually challenged every day and had a fantastic set of professors who made classes like civil procedure and contracts interesting, relevant, and thought-provoking. Who would’ve thought? I read and studied a lot. A lot. Every day, for more hours than I would’ve liked. The flipside: I had little time to focus on projects that made my heart content, that satisfied my passions, that bolstered my soul. I had little time to write, to create, to dream, to photograph, to raise funds, or to work with clients. But, I survived. I survived – and mostly enjoyed – the reportedly worst semester of law school (at least, I hope I did!), and I’m ready to move onto a year where my passions come back into play, alongside continued hours buried in the books. I’m ready to once again shift the focus to others, to causes that move me, rather than only myself.

I think 2012 was a year of dreams coming true for me. I’ve been so, so very lucky to be able to travel within the United States and abroad to work with organizations I’ve long admired; to have many meaningful conversations about social justice, women’s rights, and the law; to finally attend my dream law school – something I hoped for for so long.

I am most grateful that 2012 was a year in which the universe allowed me to experience and learn from so many new and different things. Every month has been different. The variety was a refreshing change.

What did I embrace and let go of in 2012? I think they are one and the same thing; I embraced living in the moment for much of 2012, and I let go of many of my constant worries of the future. In past years, I never could fully immerse myself in the present, because I was constantly looking towards future goals and opportunities. I was dreaming or regretting, but not living. For most of this year, I embraced the present. This was a huge shift in my worldview and it truly altered my year for the better.

For 2012, I had a long and detailed list of resolutions, many of which I sadly failed to adhere to. Instead, I was simply living in the moment, soaking up whatever knowledge and experiences I could. For 2013, I am not creating any resolutions. I simply have some big themes and hopes in mind: get courage to do the right thing for summer 2013. To do work that matters, even if it scares the hell out of you. Speak up & be confident, though you might tend towards staying quiet. Take initiative & take your nose out of the books. As a cousin wonderfully reminded me this past week, Mark Twain said: “I’ve never let my school interfere  with my education.” Most of all: focus and make difficult decisions that I’ve been putting off. On second thought, these are pretty ambitious hopes and dreams. But 2013, I’m renewed and refreshed and ready for you. Let’s do this!

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India is, for me, always a whirlwind bursting with color, flavor, anticipation, love, community, and family. The weeks I spend there are always vibrant and joyful, filled with shopping for glittering saris and shalwar kameez, stopping by the roadside for sweets and coconut water, enjoying cups of masala chai, and building beautiful human connections with family and loved ones. There is a sense of belonging – that even though I’m an Indian living abroad, I’m still welcome in this country.

My return to the U.S. after these joyful trips to my motherland always proves a shock to the system. India (and South Asia) is chaotic, colorful, and busy. There’s never a quiet moment: living there is an exercise in constant caution and living in the moment – whether it is crossing the street, warding off the dust and grime in a careening auto ride, bargaining with vendors, or having Kulfi in the midday sun.

But the minute I landed in the airport, America struck me as cold and sterile. The landscape is wide and open, breathtakingly open, but also inviting of loneliness. There are few people to be seen, and the highway is full of only cars – no scooters, auto rickshaws, men and women crossing, or even the occasional buffalo and goat.

What has immediately struck me is the isolation and impersonality that America can create, amplified in large cities. In India, I’ve noticed a deeper sense of community than what I’ve seen in the States. My grandparents know all their neighbors; they take care of one another and help each other out in times of need. My grandparents describe random encounters with people in the nearby park – perfect strangers becoming friends or exchanging words while on their daily walks. Neighbors, relatives, and friends are often stopping by to say hello. My aunt tells me stories of all the women on her floor getting together, caring for children, drinking chai, and gossiping in the middle of the day when their husbands are at work.  And this is not just a generational divide; many younger people I’ve met in India also seem to be more deeply connected to real-life communities, rather than the virtual world alone. Family, religious, and spiritual values continue to be extremely important, and in India, community is remarkably built into the fabric of daily life. No matter who you are, you are never completely alone.

But here in the U.S., life tends to be a lot more individualistic, isolated, and fragmented. I see people running in the park, but rarely do they stop to chat with strangers. In New York City, pedestrians do all they can to avoid making eye contact with strangers, let alone talk to them. People walk briskly to their destinations, iPod in hand and headphones in their ears. And from what I can tell, most of us do not know our neighbors, other than the occasional “Hi, how are you?” There are certainly no mid-day chai breaks with the entire apartment floor.

Part of this erosion of community has been the rise of technology – or perhaps we’ve turned to online communities to fill the gap. Many of my relatives in India still don’t have iPhones or constant wireless connections; some of them don’t even have internet. But they don’t exactly need it. In the U.S., lacking a strong sense of community in real life, we turn to Twitter, Facebook, and the social web to form our own groups of people with similar interests and passions.

As Shelly Turkle mentioned in her TED Talk “Connected, but Alone,”

A 50-year-old business man lamented to me that he feels he doesn’t have colleagues anymore at work. When he goes to work, he doesn’t stop by to talk to anybody, he doesn’t call. And he says he doesn’t want to interrupt his colleagues because, he says, “They’re too busy on their email.” But then he stops himself and he says, “You know, I’m not telling you the truth. I’m the one who doesn’t want to be interrupted. I think I should want to, but actually I’d rather just do things on my Blackberry.”

In his renowned work “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital,” Robert Putnam expresses alarm and concern about the long-term decline in social capital since the 1960s. Technology – from TV and radio to now, the Internet – has increasingly disconnected people from civic life and community groups. Putnam’s observations sadly ring true almost two decades later, accompanied by an even greater intensification of retreat into the virtual world.

Every time I return to India, I’m forced to unplug a bit and remember the value of human connection in creating meaningful relationships, forming supportive communities, and even encouraging social movements, civic life, and public participation that are so essential to democracy and social justice work. At the end of the day, immersing myself in India always reminds me to live in the moment, embrace the present, and step back from this online world to live, and love, the real one.

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