How Monday’s Metro Meltdown Turned Me Into an Action Hero (sortof)

Abandoned metro riders crowd the platforms and the areas surrounding metro stations.
Abandoned metro riders crowd the platforms and the areas surrounding metro stations.

I hiked my skirt up, straddled the red bike and steeled myself for the task at hand. Just minutes into my commute from northern Virginia to downtown DC, Metro had had a meltdown. I had already spent 90 minutes on a train only to off-load onto a subway platform that was packed with the contents of the two trains ahead of mine. I had then walked from Clarendon to Rosslyn to catch a bus that would take me the rest of the way into work. Blocks before I reached the station, however, I realized this idea was flawed; Rosslyn Metro had been evacuated and my intended bus was on the other side of several hundred people, four emergency vehicles and a traffic jam that rivaled any I’d seen in DC.

 

My choices, it seemed, were to wait it out (which could possibly take hours), walk (which would definitely take hours) or bike (which could take…I have no idea).

 

I decided to bike.

 

Capital Bikeshare is a bike renting service that allows you to pick up and drop off bicycles throughout the DC metro area. I’d always wanted to try it, but hadn’t really had the opportunity. There was a station nearby where I could pick up a bike, and I knew there was one near my work where I could drop a bike off, so I went for it.

 

Now I’m not a complete bike newb. In fact I’d purchased a new bike last year and ridden it quite a bit. But never in the city. Never at rush hour. Never in a maxi skirt. And never without a helmet.

 

A quick check of Twitter (with #Rosslyn trending nationally at this point) confirmed that this was indeed my best option.

 

I fumbled through the purchasing and unlocking of a bike process, then using the attached bungee chord, strapped my purse and lunch into the built-in basket, all the time thanking God that I hadn’t worn heels or brought my laptop. I texted my husband my plans, then walked the bike through a couple of intersections, to ease into reality of what I’d just committed to.

 

I pushed off and then endured about 500 terrifying yards – in my haste I’d forgotten to adjust the seat and could barely reach the pedals. Mercifully a red light gave me a chance to pull over, get off and fix it.

 

As I put distance between me and the Rosslyn Exodus, I found myself wondering about the intricacies of biking in the city. On really crowded streets could I ride on the sidewalk? How in the world would I get into a position to turn left? Would it be possible to get to work making only right turns?  In need of guidance, I realized I had a choice: follow the actions of other metro refugees on bikes (identifiable by their non-biking attire and rented bikes) or those of more seasoned bike commuters. I can tell you that it is wrong to assume that men on ten-speeds and wearing Lycra make the best role models. (Consider that a free life lesson.)

 

I crossed the Key Bridge (on the sidewalk with all the other cyclists) ringing my bell to warn everyone of my presence. Half way over the bridge it stopped working, I’m sure to the relief of everyone. I then struggled in stops and starts through Georgetown traffic; Every time I started to feel confident on the bike, traffic patterns would change, turning cars would take up my lane, or taxis would pull over in front of me. A helpful warning printed on the handlebars I gripped so tightly reminded me of the dangers of car doors opening at any minute. I tried not to get distracted by the tragedy depicted by the stick figure illustration.

 

Finally I made it to Pennsylvania Avenue, but that’s when DC rush hour truly unfolded. It’s funny (funny interesting, not funny ha-ha) how different rush hour is when you are in the safety of your air-conditioned car, listening to NPR. Desperate to get out of the car-door-can-open-any-time deathtrap, I turned off and went up 26th street to N. Here nannies pushing strollers replaced taxi drivers making sudden stops, and I lessened my vice grip on the handle bars. Blissfully, I traveled the wrong way on a almost empty one-way street for several blocks. Instinctively I turned onto Connecticut, and as I contemplated turning onto K I realized that I although know my way around the city in a car, bike navigation is a skill I do not have. I had no idea which streets had bike lanes, and although my instinct was to find major roads, once I biked on them, I regretted it.

 

Up until this point my internal GPS had been set for somewhere in the southwesterly direction. But now I needed a clearer direction. As I sweated, waiting for the light at Connecticut and K, it came to me; I understood my path. Just get to the Mall, Laurie. And don’t follow those men in Lycra. Buoyed with new determination, I flew down 17th street, maxi-skirt flapping in the breeze like a cape, signaling to everyone that I was in fact a federal-worker super-commuter.

 

When I made it to the Mall, I was confronted with a new challenge: tourists, and lots of them. I dodged and weaved my way past the WWII memorial and made my way to 14th. I then headed east on Jefferson Drive and for the first time, relaxed enough to enjoy the sheer delight of riding a bike on a beautiful morning in a beautiful city. The street was devoid of traffic, and I was surrounded by loveliness. On the left was the grassy area of the National Mall, with joggers, families and not-in-the-way tourists, and on the right, grounds keepers were planting flowers at the Smithsonian Castle and the Hirshorn Museum. Up until that point my morning had felt like Frogger, but now it felt more like the scene from the Muppet Movie where Miss Piggy rides through the park with Kermit in her basket. If I wasn’t already more than 3 1/2 hours late, I would have slowed down a little and hummed.

 

When I got to 4th street, I saw a bike lane and being the super-commuting bicycle pro that I am, took it.  A few minutes later I deposited my Capital Bikeshare bike at the HHS station and unstrapped my purse and now well-tossed salad lunch. I walked the rest of the way to work, arriving at 10:40, a little bow-legged and drenched in sweat.

 

I’m not exactly sure how much time, if any, I saved by biking from Rosslyn to Federal Center SW (my commute had started at 7:20 in Reston). I am certain, however, that even despite the white-knuckle ride through rush hour traffic, I came away much less stressed than if I’d sat in traffic in a crammed bus with 60 other sweaty, angry, off-loaded metro riders. And, I came away with a sense of accomplishment – something I don’t usually get from my 75 minute metro ride.

 

Will I try riding to work again? Absolutely! But next time I hope to be a little more prepared (sans maxi-skirt) and perhaps have a better route planned out. And this time I’ll know for sure not to follow the example of men in Lycra.

 

 

Matur og Drykkur

Its not every day that you get a personal restaurant recommendation from a world renowned food critic, but that’s exactly what happened to me this week in Iceland.

 

For the past six days I’ve been in Reykjavik for the Iceland Writers Retreat, an event that is quickly becoming my favorite thing to do each year. One of the featured authors this year was Ruth Reichl, former restaurant critic of the New York Times and executive editor of Gourmet magazine.

 

We ended up next to each other as we were waiting to board a bus that would take us to a a reception hosted by the Embassies of Canada and the UK (’cause that’s how I roll), and she told me about a new restaurant she’d just tried and adored. She showed me photos from her lunch there and enthusiastically encouraged us to try it.

 

Who could say no to that?

 

And so we trudged miles (OK, blocks) into the direction of frigid Iceland wind, to Matur og Drykkur (Food and Drink).

 

And boy, was it worth it!

Matur og Drykkur just opened in January of this year and already has received great acclaim. They specialize in traditional Icelandic fare – some recipes from hundreds of years ago, revived and reintroduced to locals and travelers alike.

 

We started with Double Smoked Lamb with Buttermilk. This fascinating starter featured thinly sliced lamb, that had been double smoked and dried. You’d think it would be chewy like jerky, but instead the pieces were crispy and delicate, like potato chips! They were quite salty, but the accompanying butter, which was sprinkled with nutmeg, tamed the salt and contrasted nicely with the crisps.

 

Then for my main course, I had Cod head cooked in chicken stock with sugar kelp, served with barley porridge, cabbage and thyme vinaigrette. The menu indicates that these two recipes were discussed as far back as 1800 in a instructional manual called “The Little Cook Book for Genteel Housekeepers.”

 

The first thing that struck me is that cod are big fish. Much bigger than I’d imagined, though in hindsight, I’m not sure I ever really thought about it. The head staring up at me from the plate was easily as big as my own. The chef explained how to eat it – find the meat on the cheeks, the top of the fillet (near the fish’s forehead), the muscle behind the eyes and the tongue, which had been breaded and fried and placed back in the fish’s mouth. Its texture was intriguing – it didn’t flake like the cheeks, but was creamy smooth.

 

The enormous head yielded it soft treasures easily – you simple had to touch the flesh with your fork and it quickly came loose. The sweet, tender flesh bits were like pillows, each piece varied only in degrees of firmness. The fish was so fresh that its memories of the cold arctic waters revealed themselves on your tongue.

 

The warm and buttery smooth barley (which may be my new comfort food) contrasted nicely with the bright and crisp cabbage and vinaigrette.

 

For dessert, we had traditional Icelandic twisted doughnut, called kleinur, and caramelized whey. The little fried pastries can be found in lots of places throughout Iceland, and they are delicious. But served with this caramelized whey takes them to a whole new level. The doughnut is almost dense and the caramelized whey, which has the viscosity of a Manuka honey, sweetens and lightens each bite.

 

My only regret is that we didn’t have more time. The restaurant had been reserved and the chef had graciously squeezed us in before the party had arrived. I’ve tried lots of great food here in Iceland, but this was by far the best I’d had – truly unique, truly authentic and truly delicious!

 

 

 

Hunger and Hope in Warren, OH

Overhead view of boy ladling gravy onto a plate of food

I wasn’t nervous until I got there. Perhaps it was the imposing bearded figure standing guard at the gate, or the group of men gathered by an entrance, but as I circled the dilapidated building looking for a place to park, my mind started generating excuses to leave. I’d already tried twice to arrange getting photographs for the Hunger and Hope assignment for National Geographic’s Your Shot website. My calls to a soup kitchen in Fairfax, VA had gone unanswered, and I’d shown up on the wrong day to capture hot meals being distributed in McPherson square in Washington, D.C. Now we were in Ohio visiting relatives for Thanksgiving, and this was going to be my last chance.

 

Despite my inner-self’s best efforts to convince me there were no parking places and I should just give up, I pulled into a spot not far from the stone and brick building housing the Warren Family Mission. The small northeast Ohio nonprofit was hosting a Thanksgiving meal from noon to four, and I’d made up my mind to capture it.

 

I took a deep breath and followed a middle-aged couple in. As we passed the bearded gate guard, he smiled and welcomed us. He didn’t, as I’d imagined, stop me to ask why I was there, tell me I should have called first, or tell me it was rude of me to capitalize on these poor people’s hard times. Maybe I didn’t stick out as much as I thought. Or maybe they truly did welcome everyone. Maybe my fear of being judged came from the fact that I was judging them.

 

Near the entrance I passed three pairs of men and heard snippets of three conversations:

 

“God is with you, don’t forget”

 

“I hear you, I understand, God will get you through this.”

 

“Lord, we praise you for all you’ve done and we ask for your help and guidance…”

 

At the entrance, a volunteer was directing people to the end of the line that had snaked around a series of hallways. I told her I was there to take photographs and without question she took me to meet a manager, who smiled and pointed me in the right direction. No anger, no judgment, no rejection.

 

The meal was being hosted in a large room with a stage on one end a several windows along one wall. As soon as I walked in, two young volunteers – a brother and sister – handing out plates and utensils greeted me, “Happy Thanksgiving!” Their mother was happy to have me take their photo, and so it began. I moved around the room, talking to people, finding out about what brought them to the Mission that day, and learning more about how the operation worked.

 

On the stage sat a group of about ten volunteers on break, each wearing a white plastic apron and a name tag. Cindy, a woman sitting near the front of the stage, said she was there with about 20 others from her church in neighboring Niles, Ohio. This was her first time volunteering, but that it was something she’d been wanting to do her whole life.

 

“What I really want to be doing is that,” she said, pointing to the food line. “I really want to be serving.”

“What do they have you doing?” I asked.

“Anything they ask,” she answered, grinning ear to ear, despite not having her chosen task.

 

She wasn’t the only first-time volunteer I met. Another woman, Shelley, told me that she and her son had signed up to come by themselves, but after posting about it on Facebook, were joined by 20 other friends and family members.

 

Some people ignored me, while others posed and joked about being famous.

 

Only one woman asked me not to take her photo. In fact, she very forcefully ordered, “Don’t you take our picture!” But then as luck would have it, the line slowed down, and she and I were stuck next to each other. We started talking and ended up laughing and talking like old friends.

 

I stayed for two hours and left having struck up conversations with more strangers than ever. Regardless of whether any of my photos get selected for the Your Shot assignment, the experience was a success. Rather than feeling like an out of place intruder, I felt like I’d played a role in the whole operation. My job was to tell the story of hunger and hope. Below are my photos.

[flickr_set id=”72157649485265391″]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Joy in a Viewfinder

Happy kids jumping

In 2006 I traveled to Kampala, Uganda for work. During my trip, I visited a school that was unique in that it accepted children with disabilities and their siblings.

 

When I arrived, the children were outside enjoying some recess and they decided to sing me some songs, so I pulled out my video camera to record them. What happens next is one of my favorite memories from that trip.

My Ax Murderer Moment

View of Reykjavik from Perlan hill

When I was planning my trip to Iceland, I never imagined I’d be living out a scene from So I Married an Ax Murderer.

 

I was in high school when the campy mystery/comedy starring Mike Myers came out. I don’t remember that much about the storyline, beyond what the title gives away, but a short scene in the opening credits made an indelible impression.

 

In the sequence, the camera follows a huge cup of cappuccino on a waitress’s tray through a crowded, funky San Francisco coffee shop. It takes a windy around tables and couches, until it arrives at its destination: Mike Myers. He takes a sip, then stands up to perform a spoken word piece at the bar’s open mike night.

The poetry was cheesy at best, but for a girl old who grew up on a dry and dusty cattle ranch outside of Lubbock, Texas, that coffee shop may have well have been the moon!  The culture! The sophistication! The high-brow coffee in a bowl-sized mug!

 

My father noticed my interest, and rather than point out how utterly ridiculous the scene was, he let me dream. I’m certain this would not have been a place he would have frequented, but he encouraged me to seek out new experiences, and perhaps most importantly, he didn’t judge.

 

Fast forward 20 years: I’ve lived in several major cities, and I’ve traveled quite a bit, but I’ve never had a moment that lived up to how I’d imagined that fictional evening in a San Francisco beatnik bar. And quite honestly, I’d forgotten about it.

 

Until Reykjavik.

 

I had traveled to the northern-most capitol to participate in the Iceland Writers Retreat, three days of workshops led by well-known authors, with time to write and explore Iceland’s rich literary history. I met writers from all over the world, in various stages of publication, and spending time with them rejuvenated my creativity and bolstered my confidence to finish old projects (as well as start new ones). In addition to the workshops, the retreat organizers planned several social events, including a visit to the Golden Circle, a literary tour, a reception with the President of Iceland, and an excursion to the home of Nobel Laureate Halldór Laxness.

 

On the last evening of the retreat, the organizers had put together a special pub night at the Kex Hostel, a popular establishment on the Reykjavik waterfront. The hostel is housed in a refurbished biscuit factory and has a trendy bar that is frequented by locals and tourists alike. The whole building has a unique, vintage industrial feel.

 

When I arrived, participants from the retreat were scattered among the other patrons, between the subway-tiled bar and the reclaimed couches. A collection of metal birdcages hung from the ceiling; antique knickknacks were artfully placed on tabletops and windowsills; and large windows, letting in the late artic sun, kept the room from being dark, despite its dark wood floors and wooden bookshelves lining the walls.

 

I followed the group to a private room in the back where our program was being held. We heard renowned author Ragna Sigurðardóttir, who read from her crime novel, The Perfect Landscape. Her clean and gentle prose took us into another world, and I was sorry when her reading was over. Then Gerður Kristný got up to read from her poem, Blóðhófnir (Bloodhoof)

 

woman in dark room, reading from a book
Gerður Kristný reading from her poem, Blóðhófnir

First she read the poem in Icelandic, so we could hear the “rhythm and sound” as it was intended. I had not realized until that moment how beautiful the language is. And it was in that moment, surrounded by new friends, listening to her warm alto voice and metered delivery, I instantly felt relaxed, at peace and happy. The rhythm of the words washed over me in soothing waves. The English version was every bit as intoxicating, and I genuinely could have listened to her all night.

 

Then the singer Lay Low took the stage.  I had discovered her during my pre-trip research and had quickly become a fan. Her songs are soulful, with just enough quirkiness to be interesting, not distracting. As I listened to her, I allowed myself to let loose and fully enjoy it. I hummed along to the songs I knew and soaked up the ones I didn’t.

 

When the program ended, no one wanted to leave. It took several polite nudges from management to end our lingering. As we exited the club, Iceland granted us one more gift – green veils of Northern lights were slow-dancing across the sky. It was perfect.

 

Walking back to the hotel, I recalled the scene from Ax Murderer. I hadn’t thought about it in a very long time, and the memory was bittersweet. My father passed away while I was in college, and grief, as it does, snuck up on me.  But the sadness was short-lived, overpowered by the warm memory of acceptance and encouragement. We had shared that silly memory and delighted in it; and now I felt like I had completed a shared goal.  There, under wafts of aurora, I could feel his support as vividly as I had 20 years ago.

 

This weekend, I plan to find that movie and play it for my kids. They’ll probably think its silly and weird, and that’s OK; it is silly and weird. But you never know what’s going to make an impression, and I hope that when something inspires them, no matter how silly or strange, I’ll recognize it and encourage them to seek out it out. Maybe they’ll find it in Reykjavik.

Syrian Defector Tracker

Social network map of Assad's network

I love a good social network analysis and The Syrian Defector Tracker, by Google and Al Jazeera is especially interesting. I learned about it at a Media and Technology in Syria discussion today at the Brookings Institute on Media and Technology in Syria.

This particular network map shows who, in Syrian President Assad’s network, has defected. The visualization tracks senior military officials, members of parliament and diplomats who have quit Assad’s regime.

What’s particularly interesting, is the interactivity of the map. You can click on nodes and see videos (Youtube embeds mostly) of each defector denouncing the regime.

Its a great example of network visualization, and a terrific supplement to Al Jazeera’s coverage of the crisis.

 

GBI Portal

Today, the project I’ve been working on, the Global Broadband and Innovations Program (GBI) announced the launch of the new GBI Portal, a multimedia resource portal and social network for development professionals interested in incorporating ICTs into their work.
The portal brings together news, commentary, and updates from the field on cutting edge technologies and their applications to social and economic development. It also incorporates an extensive (and growing) library of documents and project descriptions related to ICT4D, connectivity and innovations in development.
Created by EGAT/I&E, the portal provides sector specific information and resources for those working in:

  • Agriculture,
  • Democracy and Governance,
  • Economic Growth,
  • Education,
  • Environment,
  • Health,
  • Humanitarian Assistance, as well as
  • Cross Cutting Programs.

The Portal also provides targeted information about connectivity, mobile and innovations in development.

In addition to providing a wealth of resources, the portal also serves as a social network for development professionals interested in ICT4D. Membership to the portal is free, and gives people a place to meet, network, share ideas and questions, and form groups and participate in forums.

Wikis work wonders

I’ve had my fair share of group projects, and no matter how the groups get together (whether through work, class, or otherwise), its always been difficult to find meeting times.

Do for me, wikis have been a lifesaver. Personally I like Wetpaint, but any wiki service will do. I usually set it up with the assignment details, and create pages for a rough draft, brainstorming, and resources. (Wetpaint has a template set up already for education projects!).

The best part is that we can all work on a document together, and we don’t have to email revised versions back and forth. Email is great, but its not a great filing cabinet. On a wiki you can keep all your research articles, links, images, and anything else all together, and everyone can access them.

The wiki also helps keep people on track with participating – it can show you the number of times group members have logged in and contributed… a plus when you’ve got a less than enthusiastic partner!

There is still a lot to be said for meeting in person, and wikis don’t necessarily replace that. But they make a great compliment.

ICT4D

Good news! I’ve just accepted a position as the Communications Director of the Global Broadband and Innovations Program, and USAID initiative focused on promoting ICT4D!

Needless to say I’m thrilled! I’ll continue to post here, but will likely be posting less often. Look for ICT4D related posts on upcoming program website(s)!

 

Water crisis…coming soon, to a city near you!

 

Often when we think about a lack of access to water, we get mental images of women and children spending half their day walking for miles through rural countryside to some distant water source. And that certainly is the case for many people throughout the world.

But with half of the world’s population living in rapidly expanding urban areas, the world’s cities are facing their own water crisis. The two main water concerns for urban areas are a lack of access to clean water and sanitation and increasing water disasters.

Rooftops of Mumbai slum
Photo: Kaustav Bhattacharya (Flikr)

Access to Water

Even though great strides have been made in access to water, population growth and urbanization is outpacing efforts to bring clean water to everyone. Inadequate infrastructure and increased pollution (from both industrial and human waste) are just two factors that make urban areas vulnerable to water problems. With just 5 years to go until the MDG deadline of 2015, 884 million people still do not use an improved source of drinking water, and 2.6 million lack access to basic sanitation!

Water disasters

The recent floods in Pakistan represent another major issue for urban areas. Water related disasters such as floods, tsunamis, droughts, and water born diseases and epidemics have escalated since the turn of the century. In fact, in just 40 years, the economic costs from such disasters has risen ten times!

Image of urban area
Photo: FAO/Giulio Napolitano

Unplanned urbanization is outpacing city leaders’ ability to provide the needed infrastructure, and playing catch up is difficult and expensive. Despite water being a “gift of nature,” it takes money (and lots of it) to manage water resources (like watershed and river basin development, storage, risk management, etc), to create and maintain water services and utilities, and to develop, research and administer policies.

Funding for these expenses can come from either taxes, sales, or aid. But most funding only supports the creation of new assets and facilities, and ignores the management and maintenance of existing resources.  The estimated yearly investments for water and sanitation are $15 billion – half of what is needed to meet the MDG targets.

Cover of WWAP's Urban Water Briefing NoteTo highlight this issue, “Urban Water Management” will be the theme of the next World Water Day, coming up on March 22, 2011.  The UN World Water Assessment Program has released a briefing document, Water for Sustainable Human Settlements, which details many of these issues and the impact that urbanization is having on the world’s water.