musings on travel, international living, development aid, politics, turkey (the country more than the meat) and anything else that comes to mind...

Monday, December 16, 2013

What's Going On in South Sudan? Second Hand Accounts from Juba

Like most current and former Juba-ites, I've been following events in South Sudan closely over the past day or so - thankful not to be there and worried about those that are. Here are a few links re: what's happening (by no means exhaustive):
For a brief/general overview of the politics of South Sudan, click here. Or here. Or here.

Then there are the first person (or second/third person) accounts trickling out. A good friend in Juba (though a blogger herself) is wary of posting things while still there, so with her permission I'm recapping here. 

(Keep in mind that 1. neither she nor I are journalists, 2. I have no way of verifying whether any of this is true, and 3. those of us who have had similar conversations over time realize that the Juba rumor mill is quite robust and there's rarely such a thing as 'unbiased'. That having been said...)

My friend's security guard at her house lives in an area just outside Jebel market called Kor Wolliang and fled last night after the fighting started. His take is that something happened after the National Liberation Council (NLC) meeting yesterday... whatever it was "the Nuer (aka former VP Riek Machar's tribe)-loyal presidential forces took charge in the Giera barracks. They 'slaughtered' some Dinka (aka President Salva Kiir's tribe), broke open the stores, stole ammunition, and then when the Dinka forces brought in reinforcements from outside, they fled towards the Yei road. In getting there, the Dinka following them 'slaughtered' Nuer along the way. Then the Nuer forces tried repeatedly to come back into town, hence why we've been hearing fighting from that side of town."

So basically a lot of slaughtering... scary scary scary. That particular word seems to be floating around a lot right now, with another friend reporting through the grapevine that hundreds have already died. Unfortunately, it's highly likely that the real story (or the death toll) will ever come out.

The guard continues (via my friend): "at the same time, once fighting got going at one side, fighting in the Bilpam area then kicked off. It sounds like Kiir's forces were victorious there, too, but it's unclear where the Nuer forces are rumored to have gone. He (the guard) claims that the Equatorians (i.e. him - from Yei) aren't taking sides, so they're tasked now with keeping the city of Juba safe. They're manning all of Munuki road, and around the back through Kator Payam and the Bridge. The Dinka are there as well, but they're mostly staying in the barracks."

While this conversation (between my friend and her guard) is happening, 3 SPLA soldiers walked by. Her guard friend said they were some of the Equatorians, which is "why they're being peaceful and just patrolling". She could also hear some pretty heavy vehicles on the UNDP road from her house which the guard "claimed were tanks, so that no one will try to pass the road to President Kiir's house at night."

So what's next? Well, this depends on several things - chief among them whether Riek Machar (who is currently unaccounted for) is found and whether he is put on trial. If this happens things could deteriorate rapidly, further fracturing an already fractured and tenuous political (and potentially military) situation. It will also be interesting to see whether Kiir backs away from the 'attempted coup' rhetoric - though I doubt it. In all, things don't look promising but, as they've done so often before, South Sudan might prove us all wrong and bring things back to the muddled, how-does-anything-actually-work-here sense of normalcy that we have come to know and love. 

So there's lots of speculation/conjecture here tinged with (most likely) some facts. Take it or leave it, but my experience is that Juba is a very small place and that word travels fast, especially among South Sudanese. Unfortunately very little of this is verifiable and therefore will unlikely ever come out in official media - a positive byproduct of journalistic integrity and the need for fact-based reporting but also the reason why so little info at all tends to come out of a place like Juba.


The Mack Brown Legacy - Far Beyond Austin & All 'Bout the Money

As a UT grad, my life is obviously consumed right now by two words: Mack. Brown. So now, a guest post from a good friend (and my source for what's really going on in college football)...

I remember as a kid, you could get tickets to a Texas football game for $5 at the local HEB. The Longhorns couldn’t fill the stadium on a Saturday to watch a mediocre John Mackovic coached team; it had been a similar story for the twenty years following the retirement of Darrell Royal. Today you practically have to be a dellionaire to afford season tickets.

With the announcement that Mack Brown will be “retiring” as head coach of the Texas Longhorns after 16 seasons, he’ll leave the Forty Acres - and college football as a whole - a vastly different landscape than he found it. Texas is now a major industry, the largest athletic department in the country. They have their own TV network, the stadium has been expanded, improved, and every dime has been squeezed out to create one of the few profitable athletic departments in the country. There will be much written about the legacy of Mack, what he’s done for the program, and how he was unable to leave under his own terms. But it's bigger than that.

Brown’s legacy looms large. He will be viewed in a similar fashion to the man he was often compared to, Darrell Royal. Royal put the Longhorns on the national stage, a stage to which Mack Brown returned them all those years later. Mack did it in his own style, wearing his heart on his sleeve, treating his players like his kids, and acting with a genuine kindness towards everyone he encountered. He turned Texas football into a family - a family that still lives its life on a national stage.

While the circumstances surrounding his exit will leave a bitter taste in everyone’s mouth, it had been in the works since Texas fell to Alabama in the 2010 national championship game. From there, the program slipped and Brown’s inability to rebound quickly from the subsequent 5-7 season was ultimately his undoing. It didn't help that Texas' struggles happened to coincide with the rising success of Texas A&M, Baylor, TCU, and Texas Tech... 

Although these are the most visible reasons, his departure has more to do with the current landscape of college football - one that Mack Brown himself helped create.

There are many programs around the country that would take 25 wins over three seasons; however, the number of schools where that is acceptable is starting to dwindle. College football is no longer about wins and championships... it is about the dollar signs that come with those victories. Mack Brown created a successful program, but the Texas Athletics financial powerhouse is far more impressive. It is a model that many around the country are trying to emulate. The constant shifting of conferences, the increasing stadium capacities, the 'arms race' of facilities. It's all to generate the most revenue possible. But none of this unprecedented growth is sustainable without the wins. Some will say that Texas going 8-5, 9-4, and 8-4 over the past three seasons is below the bar that Mack Brown set. But the decision to hand over the keys to the program right now has much more to do with dollar signs. Season tickets are down, the stadium wasn’t selling out, and donations aren’t coming in at previous levels. And for an annual salary of over $5 million a year, Brown simply was no longer a profitable investment for the Athletics department. 

Brown wasn’t the most legendary coach to succumb to this kind of pressure and he certainly won’t be the last. Florida State ran one of the most legendary coaches in the history of college football out of Tallahassee. Terrible you say? Unfair? Well, they are now sitting in the National Championship game, on a trajectory of sustained excellence and restored enthusiasm in a program that had fallen behind Virginia Tech and Florida. The resurgence of the Seminoles leaves questions about how much longer Frank Beamer (VT) and Will Muschampp (Florida) will still be at their respective schools. Prior to the Sandusky scandal that ended Joe Paterno’s career, he had been locked in an annual debate of whether it was time for the legendary coach to hang up as Penn State found themselves outside the power brokers of college football.

It’s a trend that will only get worse as coaching salaries continue to soar and expectations for schools across every major conference spiral out of control. If Alabama is not playing for an SEC or National Championship game over the next two seasons, do people start calling for a coach that has won three National Championships in four years to move on? At this point, I wouldn’t be surprised. Even schools like Wake Forest that don’t have the resources to compete and have managed to be a respectable program over the past decade anyways decided that wasn’t good enough. Because when you think of the Demon Deacons you think of a team that should be at the pinnacle of the ACC each season... right?

Mack Brown helped create a program that is viewed with envy around the country. And ultimately it’s the 'arms race' that created today's Texas that eventually - and ironically - cemented his downfall. It’s not unfair. It’s simply the environment in which we live. A new coach has the opportunity to return Texas to the national stage athletically. But the new coach will also have to sell season tickets, increase donations, and give Texas a bump in an ever competitive Texas recruiting scene. Could Mack Brown have gotten the Longhorns back there? 

There was too much money at risk to find out.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Does the Hajj Radicalize Muslims? You Might Be Surprised By the Answer

Every year millions of Muslims from around the world participate in the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. Despite being a fundamental pillar of Islam, the Hajj is often misunderstood, especially by those wary of increased religion-tinged violence in recent years. The July 7 bombers of the London public transport system, not to mention the 9/11 hijackers, had undertaken the Hajj; could it have been the cause of their increased radicalization? Wouldn't a yearly gathering of more than two million Muslim men and women from over one hundred different countries be a good place to breed religious extremism?
So what is the actual impact of the Hajj on pilgrims?
Researchers from Harvard (Khwaja and Kremer) and Case Western Reserve University (Clingingsmith) decided to find out. They conducted an experiment on Pakistani Hajjis (those who have performed the Hajj) back in January 2006, comparing successful and unsuccessful applicants to an existing lottery system that allocates a limited supply of Hajj visas to aspiring pilgrims. Results suggest...

From my Huffington Post blog. Full post here.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Malala and the Keys to Peace

Even as we celebrate the International Day of the Girl today, two days ago we remembered the anniversary of the Taliban's attack against Malala Yousafzai. Malala, a then 15-year-old Pakistani student who campaigned for greater educational opportunities for girls, miraculously survived and just a year later brings audiences to tears with her story of strength, defiance and heart.
She is an inspiration to people of all ages, nationalities, religions and sexes. She inspires me, a 30-something Turkish-American Christian man, in ways that few do. More importantly, she shows that perhaps girls and young women are the biggest untapped resource in the world.
From my new Huffington Post blog (apparently they let just about anyone get one of those these days...) - see the full post here, including shout out to the Andi Leadership Institute for Young Women!

Monday, September 2, 2013

Top 11 from the People's Republic

We just went to China and it was... well... amazing.

For my perceptions on the People's Republic, click here. For photos, click here. And for the Top 11 highlights from our trip to Beijing, Chengdu, Hangzhou and Shanghai......

11. Chinese Opera. I know it's cheesy touristy but the mask thing was pretty freakin' awesome.
10. Breaching the Great Wall, something those pesky Mongols never could do.
9. Juxtapositioning a redheaded Mexican sporting a communist star hat bought in Vietnam with the portrait of Chairman Mao outside the Forbidden City in Beijing. Not kidding.
8. Capturing my Turkish friend with a similar hat posing as a Latin American dictator at a fabulous temple complex in Chengdu in what might be the best photo of the trip.
7. Learning how to make dumplings and, more importantly, eating them at a friend's parent's place.
6. Completing the most picturesque, sweatiest, excruciatingly difficult and undeniably memorable run ever: twice around the lake in Hangzhou.
5. Pandas! (i.e. a species that has successfully survived way beyond its expiration date because of its 'cute' gene... seriously the things have basically zero actual survival skills)
4. A toast to a fantastic trip on the eve of our departure on a rooftop bar on the Bund, looking out over Shanghai (which kind of looks like a cross between lower Manhattan and a space colony).
3. K. A. R. A. O. K. E. (including discovering that your Chinese friend might actually be Robbie Williams)
2. The food... omg the food. (hot potpeking duck, etc.)
1. Spending innumerable hours/days with a fascinating group of future global leaders with whom I will forever share the bond of Chen Chen.

Friday, August 30, 2013

中國: Decoding the People's Republic

It's a catchy title, but alas, I have no magical decoder ring. After spending 2 weeks in China, I find myself asking more and more new questions... but somehow (as a former expat aid worker with magical powers) I kinda sorta understand the Chinese marginally better. Ok, so it's more like:

中國: Understanding (Slightly Better) the People's Republic

China. 1.35 bazillion people in roughly the same geographic area as the US of A. Commu-capitalism. Unprecedented modernism and economic growth. Over 160 cities with a population greater than 1 million.

Sure, it's is all of those things on the surface. But what most of us don't realize is the depth and complexity behind the mind-boggling statistics. If viewed from a western perspective, China makes little sense. How can such a massive non-democratic country rise to be such a global superpower?

When viewed from a more Chinese perspective, it's a wonder such growth didn't happen sooner.

For the sake of full disclosure, I had the distinct honor and privilege to be a part of an amazing group of graduate students (let's just call me the butler) sponsored by a Chinese company, who rolled out the red carpet in unbelievable fashion (pun intended). Starting in Beijing, we saw temples and pandas in Chengdu and the beautiful environs of Hangzhou, ending our trip amidst the bustling modernity of Shanghai (for my Top 11 from the trip, click here). We met with fascinating experts and ate unbelievable food. In other words, my impressions were undoubtedly skewed by our style of tour-guided travel and there is so much more of China (mainly the poorer/rural/minority areas that are all crucial pieces to the puzzle) I have yet to discover.

But enough with the caveats...

The Why Nations Fail fellas will tell you (my apologies to Acemoğlu and Robinson for butchering/paraphrasing your thesis) that China has succeeded so far by creating inclusive economic institutions but will fail in the long run if those are not supported by similarly inclusive political institutions. Although only time will tell, I'm not so sure I agree. Seen from a western lens, inclusive political institutions seem to be the key to long-term success, as shown by post-industrialization UK versus say, Mobutu's Congo.

But there's something different about China. Something that makes the western lens blur until one swaps it out for an eastern one (want to make a zillion dollars in today's global economy? Bifocals.). There are certain things about China that are not easily understood and certainly won't be explained thoroughly in a blog...

Challenge. Accepted.

I'll attempt to explain 2 aspects of China that (1) I found fascinating and (2) illuminate to some degree why China is what it is today despite our western perceptions.

(If you're tired of reading and want to skip to the photos and/or the Top 11, I won't hold it against you)

First off, it's important to realize the Chinese culture pre-dates most of western culture and - unlike the Romans, the Ottomans, the Incas, the Phoenicians, etc. - has changed comparatively little from century to century. Sure, modernity and economic prosperity has arrived to much of China, but they have arrived on distinctly Chinese terms with a level of nationalism that puts the Turks or Ethiopians to shame. The best illustrations (literally) of this were presented to us by an American man in Shanghai who had lived in Taiwan or China since the early '70s. Using drawings from East Meets West: An Infographic Portrait, he explained concepts of punctuality, waiting in line, ego, self-expression, etc. that are crucial to understanding what makes China tick.

Of these, the most informative to me was a picture of a line of employees all in a row. In the western view, the boss is slightly bigger than the rest i.e. slightly more important. In China, the size of the boss dwarves that of his or her employees. The boss is king, emperor, omniscient supreme leader, etc. To me this symbolizes a number of things, chief (again, pun intended) among them the deferential nature of Chinese culture. In the US, we are taught to respect our elders but challenge authority if not in line with our moral, ethical, religious, etc. underpinnings. In China, the boss rules. Period. Whether you agree with him or not, you do not challenge his authority. A political system whereby the entire country is strongly ruled by a few can only thrive in a culture where figures of authority are practically deified.

My second point is a slightly more technical one: internal migration/urbanization. With 160 cities number 1 million or more people, China must grapple with providing urban services (trash removal, health care, sewage, etc.) to a daunting amount of people. No matter how many iPhones you produce and how large government revenues are, this is a monumental task. Nevertheless, the parts of the cities we saw were clean and had a manageable amount of people/traffic (especially compared to Mumbai). The head of the China Center for Urban Development explained this to us by comparing internal migration in his country to external immigration in the US. Sure, rural Chinese can visit the cities and many do. But to settle and, more importantly, receive services from the city (or federal/state/local governments in the US immigration example), one must register with authorities - a process that is anything but easy. For a whole host of reasons, Chinese mayors often choose modernization and beautification projects over increased services to rural migrants. Essentially, a farmer from the western provinces will have a heck of a time settling in Shanghai.

Brutal? Unjust? Just plain not right? Perhaps. But it's also a way to facilitate rapid economic growth (though admittedly not holistic growth) in a more manageable way. In the US we have the "American Dream" to guide us; we're rarely satisfied with or even cognizant of our place in society. Social, economic and geographic mobility is our right as Amrrcans, damnit. It's engrained in our culture. But what if our population was 5 times the size of what it is now in the same geographic area? How open to a pluralistic system including such unfettered mobility would we be then?

Our American friend in Shanghai put it best (again I paraphrase)... Whether they are intrinsically happy with their lot in life or not, the Chinese (excluding Tibetans and other minority groups outside the majority Mandarin/Cantonese about whom I sadly know even less) always know where they stand in society. They understand their role, how their tiny piece of the puzzle is part of a larger, millennia old experiment that has adapted over time while still maintaining some fundamental tenets of what it means to be Chinese. They are promised little (other than peace, access to some services, etc.) by their government and they expect little. But... at the same time have a reputation for being hyper competitive and enamored with luxury goods that, in theory, signify a great social stance and the possibility of mobility......

Forget understanding or decoding it, apparently I'm still trying to define the enigma that is the People's Republic of China. Sheesh.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Book Review: Aid Worker Fiction

Aid workers are constantly in a foreign land. In our home countries we struggle to connect with university friends and to explain our career choices, oftentimes to ourselves. In our host countries we struggle with perceptions and stereotypes, simultaneously battling and reinforcing them. In both places we find love in hopelessness and frustration in simplicity.

Such is the life of an aid worker. And such is the portrayal of Mary-Anne and her slew of heroes and anti-heroes in “Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit” (#MMMM), the second piece of 'aid worker fiction' by anonymous author J. of Tales from the Hood blogosphere fame.

#MMMM picks up where “Disastrous Passion: A Humanitarian Romance Novel” left off, with Mary-Anne having moved from post-earthquake Haiti to drought- and conflict-prone Horn of Africa, the latter of which I know well from personal experience. The area between the Somali Region of Ethiopia and Somalia proper, in all its dusty and wind-blown glory, holds a special place in my heart. The Somalis. The Highlanders - foreigners in their own country. The idealists. The braying donkeys. The warm St. George. The stress. The fulfillment.

And thus the nostalgia emanating from #MMMM's 130 pages flows like the Webi Shebelle in rainy season. It is acronym and jargon-heavy, just like our business, and it transports aid workers into a sometimes uncomfortable / sometimes humorous self-reflective posture: was I in that 'life-saving' coordination meeting? Did I have one too many lukewarm beers under that same tree? Am I a "deployment smoker"?

In this way, one can almost overlook the dangled story lines and the sometimes choppy narrative, though somewhere my high school English teacher is cringing at the thought. For me these imperfections somehow reflect the predictable chaos of aid work, whether this effect is intended or not. 

Mary-Anne is the altruistic, newly minted rising star that all aid workers knew we would become sooner rather than later upon signing up for that first post overseas. Her mentor (and sometimes object of complicated desire) in the Dolo Ado refugee camp is Jon, a seasoned aid worker desperately trying to juggle professional and family demands while imparting on Mary-Anne (and us) his deep wisdom of a complicated world. Mulu Alem represents Ethiopian ‘Highlanders’ in the story, a government bureaucrat hopelessly stuck miles away from his love, the beautiful Aster, who (I believe is the same person that) nurses Brandon, the hapless former boss of Mary-Anne, back to health in Addis Ababa. Mark is the know-it-all Oxfam America director to whom relief environments are made infuriatingly more complicated by seasoned veterans like Jon. Jean-Philippe, who swept Mary-Anne (Mehreee-ahhhhn) off her feet in Haiti and followed her to an apartment in Nairobi that neither of them ever see, is relegated to the back seat of this tale, leaving young Mary-Anne to seek out more available outlets for her frustration and celebration. Ali is the sharp-shooting Somali teenager with a penchant for jihad.

The story is very real for those who have been there (read: in the 'field' doing humanitarian aid work) before. For those that haven’t, #MMMM is a rare ‘real’ glimpse into the strange, and often misunderstood, world of international humanitarian aid, told from the viewpoint of a few pawns with broad-sweeping implications for an entire industry. The skewed funding priorities that may or may not line up with need. The ever-present fight for finite resources between charities, all vying to “pee on a few bushes” in the humanitarian disaster du jour. 

Ultimately, #MMMM represents all that is good, bad and ugly about humanitarian aid. It is real yet fictitious (J. makes certain of pointing out that this is a work of fiction on several occasions). It is equal parts hopeless and inspiring. It is flippant yet wise. It personifies an industry’s own collective anonymity.

And it’s well worth your time.

“Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit” ($3.99) is available for download at Amazon.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

What 'Change' Means in Afghanistan

A mixture of sadness and hope came over me when I first looked at the photo.

Afghan women studying medicine. A beautiful photo personifying the cultural revolution that was sweeping Afghanistan in the 1950s and 60s.
Courtesy: The Atlantic (AFP/Getty Images)

Ismail Jan*, I asked an office mate, isn't this a fascinating photo?

"Yes." Matter-of-fact. Non-emotional.

This was taken in Kabul in 1962.


So what do you think?

"I think it is a nice picture. The women are studying."


"But you see this," he points at the women, "caused this." In front of his finger is another photo, taken from behind, of a turbaned Afghan man with a wooden-handled Kalashnikov slung over his back.


"Yes. Most of us don't mind women getting educated. It's just that we were always a religious country and the revolution [led by the last king's of Afghanistan] to modernize was too drastic. It happened too fast. People were afraid. When people become afraid they become violent."

Hmm... it's a fair point, one I had never fully considered in the Afghan context. Incremental change vs. overnight revolution. Unfortunately that is a much harder 'sell' to those of us from cultures that require a near-immediate return on our investment and that (albeit only within the last 50 years or so) take gender equality as a given.

I picture a group of protesting aid workers in front of the Afghan Embassy in DC:

"What do we want?!" CHANGE!

"When do we want it?!" Incrementally... ideally within a 15-20 year time frame with well-established benchmarks and metrics.

'NOW!' seems like an easier concept for us to understand (and a catchier slogan); regardless of the fact that it took us (enlightened Westerners) centuries to free slaves and even longer to allow women the right to vote.

So what does change mean in Afghanistan? I have to believe that each conversation about celebrating differences, each gender sensitivity training, each new 'capacity building exercise' plants a seed (please excuse the use of an extremely over-used horticultural metaphor). Over time, with sensitivity to Afghan cultural norms and promotion of the more moderate elements of society (they do exist), change can come. Importantly, change has to be embraced and pursued by a critical mass of Afghans. The international community is there to support them in their fight against corruption and in the pursuit of peace; but only if they want, ask for and (dare I say one day) pay for our expertise.

But donors and taxpayers demand to see near immediate results, maybe even dream of revolutionary change? Be careful what you wish for...

Ismail Jan went on to tell me what happened after the modernization revolution led by Mohammad Zair Shah and others after their time spent in Europe: 50 years of protracted, increasingly-conservative-rhetoric-tinged (read: Taliban) armed conflict. It's much more complicated than that (and I'd love to read more about the mid-century 'cultural revolution' and it's impact on the subsequent instability if anyone has any suggestions). I realize that. But I'm having trouble thinking that at least a partial causal relationship doesn't exist.

Realistically, true change in Afghanistan could be a generational phenomenon.

In today's Afghanistan, young people with greater access to the internet and greater interest in prosperity (and modernization) will one day be in power. They are heavily influenced by a strong tribal elder system in which many local leaders undeniably ascribe to extreme or fundamentalist interpretations of Islam and that has been a pervasive part of their culture for centuries. But they also subscribe religiously to contemporary Turkish soap operas, they periodically sport Levi's instead of shalwar kameez and they plug away on iPhones in staggering numbers. Times, they are a-changin'.

As unsatisfying it may be to those of us who are products of the instant gratification generation, change will come slowly to a place where the number of fundamental problems is outweighed only by the tonnage of opium produced each year. Change will be slow. Incremental. Gradual.

And, most importantly, change will only happen on Afghan time.

*name changed

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Afghan Students Debate. I Judge.

Efhamullah started softly. He methodically made eye contact with everyone in the room while he praised Allah and welcomed his adversaries. Then he looked at me.

"I admit that Afghanistan is one of the most corrupt countries in the world" he said before pausing, I'm assuming for effect. "But this corruption is not caused by Afghans. This corruption is caused by foreigners implementing projects."

He was still staring right at me. Almost smiling. Smug. Confident.

Fridays in Kabul are usually dull. After looking forward to sleeping late all week, the prospect of waking up with nothing to do is usually daunting.

Not yesterday.

That's because the Afghanistan National Debate Tournament started yesterday. By some random coincidence I became a judge, despite the fact that I have only cursory knowledge of and experience with formal debates.

The topic (or 'motion' in debate-speak) dealt with an imaginary issue that, in Afghanistan, has at least some basis in reality: should international donor projects be awarded only to Afghan NGOs, companies and universities?

The two sides (government vs. opposition) were to be represented by 8 university students representing 4 different institutions from around the country. (In all, 20 universities participated in this year's national tournament.)

Efhamullah represented the government. Acknowledging that corruption indeed plagued his country, he rhetorically and convincingly presented arguments (including the assertion that people like me are responsible for the corruption in his country) in favor of Afghan-izing development projects. He handled opposition questions with ease. He spoke clearly and confidently. At one point during his 7 minutes I stopped taking notes just so I could watch the spectacle.

Although I agreed with practically nothing he said, Efhamullah handily won the session with the highest individual score. Although I was impressed with all 8 (especially the brave young woman who acted as the Deputy Prime Minister), his delivery, style, and command of the issues was unmatched by his fellow debaters.

Pretending to know what I was talking about, I gave feedback to the group after the session. Slow down. Try not to read your points verbatim. Don't be combative. Yelling does not make your arguments stronger.

Much to my surprise/delight, Efhamullah was smiling at me during my mini-speech. Gone was the smugness of before, replaced by a respectful and genuine-looking grin. Leaning forward in his chair, his brain seemed to zero in on my words. Maybe he didn't really believe what he had said... maybe he was just a really convincing debater (politician?)... maybe the strong handshake he gave me on his way out was actually his most sincere action of the day.

On the way home, I couldn't help but think that I had just met the future President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Turkey: Possible Outcomes & What Protesters Want

As protests continue on the streets of Turkey's cities large and small, one can't help but wonder: what will come of all this? What are the possible outcomes? What do the protesters actually want?

On Saturday I wrote that, unless a viable challenger to Erdoğan miraculously appeared, all this protesting may fade into history with little fundamental change. After almost a full week of protests, I'm starting to think I was (at least partially) wrong. I still think that Erdoğan will continue to lead the country (i.e. not resign before completing his term) and the well-organized AKP will likely stay in power even through the next election unless a viable opposition arises. But when the tear gas clears the air and the makeshift barricades are finally removed from Taksim Square, some things will have changed.

Firstly, although the mainstream Turkish press has been woefully absent from reporting on the protests, the international press should get kudos for being in the thick of it. One can literally read dozens of analyses in English and other languages (@OccupyTaksim has a good round-up and I regularly update my twitter feed with good articles) on the events of the past week. And for once (my dissatisfaction with foreign reporting on Turkey is well-documented), many show a level of true understanding of the underlying reasons why people have taken to the streets. Perceptive enough to see that the protests are more than over a few trees in Taksim, journalists, facebookers, tweeters, inquisitive friends-of-Turks and practically anyone using the internet now knows about the Prime Minister's troubling blend of paternalistic, authoritarian Islamism.

One outcome of the protests is thus the termination of the honeymoon between Erdoğan and the international press who regularly touted his brand of 'mildly Islamic' 'democracy' as an example for the region. They now see that an Erdoğan-led Turkey is "fast turning from democratic haven in the Middle East to unblemished authoritarianism", perhaps leading to more external scrutiny directed at him from foreign media and, ultimately, governments.

Undoubtedly there will be other outcomes. Many protesters call for the resignation of the PM (#TayyipISTIFA) and police leaders in some cities. I'm not so sure that this will (or even should) happen. Police leaders? Probably. Erdoğan? Unlikely. Better to search for a viable challenger in the next election, thus derailing his aspirations to be President after increasing the power of that largely ceremonial office (i.e. 'pulling a Putin').

What outcomes would the protesters actually like to see? As with the initial 'Occupy' movements on Wall St. and elsewhere around the world, you'd probably get 50 different answers if you asked 50 different protesters. However, an anonymous group of Turks will publish a full-page ad in tomorrow's New York Times (paid for entirely by crowdfunding from 'concerned individuals around the world') outlining the best, most realistic set of demands I've seen yet (click here for the full text of the ad):
We demand an end to police brutality.
We demand a free media.
We demand open democratic dialogue between citizens and those elected to public service, not the dictates of special interests.
We demand an investigation of the government’s recent abuse of power, which has led to the loss of innocent lives.
That's not too much to ask, is it Mr. PM?

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Is Gezi Park Turkey's Breaking Point?

Hours before I returned to Afghanistan for a second time on Wednesday's 3am flight from Istanbul, my cousin and I had a conversation that, just a few days later, seems somewhat surreal. We spoke about the approaching breaking point in Turkey; the point at which a seemingly innocuous event could cause people to take to the streets.

Turks, especially those of the secular persuasion, have long resented Prime Minister Erdogan and his ruling AK Party (though they have been unable to produce a viable alternative). Simultaneously autocratic and fundamentalist, Erdogan has undoubtedly reached the point of believing that he can do no wrong. Everything he says is done immediately, no questions asked. It doesn't matter what 'the people' think; he wants it done so it shall be done. He knows what is best for Turkey.

It's a cunning form of dictatorship that manipulates Turkey's unique style of 'democracy' and is protected by the comedy that is the EU accession process. Erdogan is undoubtedly a deft politician. But has his arrogance may have finally gotten the better of him.

Today's Turks (at least those family and friends with whom I chatted over the past two weeks) are fed up with Erdogan doing as he pleases with no repercussions. His cronies in Parliament pass religion-soaked bills and the level of corruption surrounding government contracts has skyrocketed in recent years alongside increasing taxes. Yes, Istanbul is more beautiful than I've ever seen it and public transportation (among other government-supported services) functions well. But at what cost?

I've thought for a while that it would be a comparatively small, unrelated incident that enticed people into the streets. The 'kissing protest' in a subway broken up by police and religious zealots. The passing of a law that restricts the sale of alcohol after 10pm.

The attempt by (literally) tree huggers to protect Gezi Park, one of Istanbul's last remaining public green spaces, from Erdogan's people turning it into a shopping mall. 

What started as a few hundred environmentalists on Monday has morphed into millions on the streets (and bridges) of Istanbul and cities across Turkey after police used tear gas to disperse the protestors. This is now much bigger than trees. A seemingly innocuous environmental protest balloons into a full scale popular revolt unseen to Erdogan in his decade in power.

This may be the breaking point many of us have anticipated; the moment where Erdogan's arrogance meets the wrath of a disgruntled populous. Or it may not be. Either way, an opposition challenger to the Populist/Islamist in Chief is yet to emerge. Until he or she does, this may be just another protest that ends with Erdogan continuing to do as he pleases.

Here's to hoping this is not the case.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Classical Pianist must be a Massive Threat

So my good friend Tayyip has done it again. This time his cronies in the judiciary have convicted Fazil Say - perhaps contemporary Turkey's most famous classical musician - of 'insulting Islam'. Since when is it a crime to insult Islam in Turkey? Oh right, since however long Erdoğan has been in power. I thought Ergenekon (and other military witch hunts) marked an insurmountable level of ridiculousness. Apparently I was wrong.

To be fair, Fazil Say must be a massive threat to national security. The pianist and composer - who has garnered worldwide acclaim working with the New York Philharmonic, Berlin Symphony and others - must be a bad, bad man. A felon. A breaker of laws. The uni-bomber!

Why, you ask?


His most egregious tweet, you ask?

A link to Ömer Hayyam's "Quatrain". Though I'm not familiar with the piece myself, apparently it discusses sex, wine and... you guessed it - the Garden of Eden. Blasphemous. Fazil also tweet-joked about Imams and the call to prayer. Double and triple blasphemous.

Joking aside, Istanbul's 19th criminal court just convicted Say of 'inciting hatred' and 'insulting Islam'... on Twitter. Fortunately he won't serve any jail time... unless he 'commits a similar crime' within 5 years. Whether or not you agree with his views or style, jailing someone for crassness is a bit much.

But the whole episode brings up a broader, more subtle issue with Erdoğan's Turkey, one that further reinforces my image of him as a shrewd political operator above all else.

As has been pointed out by others, using the courts to silence critics is sadly nothing new in Turkey. Communists, comedians, journalists and Lord-knows-who-else have been put in jail for lesser things than 140 characters of 'blasphemy'. Erdoğan has continued this tradition, simply re-focusing it not only on those critical to him but on those perceived to be critical of Islam in general. Whereas Atatürk and/or the Armenian Genocide were (and arguably still are) off limits, Turkey's taboo of the day is the Prophet. Don't give Lord Tayyip too much credit for this bit of judicial ingenuity.

My heart goes out to Fazil Say. Turkey is a beautiful country with so much to offer; but the 'insult' laws are a continuing thorn in its, and Mr. Say's, side. Article 301, the law against insulting "Turkishness" (which now includes Islam perhaps?) is absolutely Byzantine. Pun intended.

Say is simply the latest public figure to be caught up in Erdoğan's campaign to integrate radical Islam even more into the fabric of Turkish society, using whatever tactics - old and new, tried and true - he possibly can.

(Hat tip goes to Marc Champion for his excellent article in Bloomberg.)

Monday, April 8, 2013

Top 14 from the Last 365

Around this time last year, Lauren and I quit our jobs. She was accepted into the graduate program of her dreams so we would need to be back stateside in August anyways. But why not quit early and travel for a few months? After that's over, why stop traveling? There's long weekends... winter vacation... spring break... remember them?

Needless to say, the last year has been ______________ (insert synonym for 'amazing' here)! This post is as much an open invitation for you to seek tips and suggestions/offer your own experiences and thoughts/etc as it is a selfish exercise in nostalgia.

Here are my top (3+6+5=) 14 highlights:

14. Pretending I know how to play frisbee with great Juba friends on Tiwi beach in Kenya.
13. Holiday shenanigans with Lauren's family on the Texas coast.
12. Chillin' with some elephants in Jaipur before melting at the Taj Mahal.
11. Trying to photo bomb crasians at Angkor Wat.
10. Coming home to this mug after playing soccer with village kids while dodging dogs and cows in South Sudan.
9. Planning where we want to live while jogging through the streets of Sydney.
8. Completing the (not-really-a-real-thing) Luang Prabang Mekong Triathlon(g).
7. Helicoptering over the outer reef in NE Australia.
6. Practically everything (the viewglaciersTe Papa museumwhale watching in Kaikurawine tastingdouble rainbowsbaby seals, good times with old/new friends, night runs through parks, etc etc etc...) about New Zealand. Yes, including jumping off a bridge for the first time.
5. Trying desperately not to wreck a motorcycle in Vietnam while a man half my size maneuvers us through mountain passes along the stunning (and curvy) coastal road to Hoi An. Ha Long Bay and the limestone caves were pretty sweet too.
4. Waking up in the rain at 3am on the last day of arduous/awesome trekking along the Inca Trail... then hiking a few hours before dawn just in time to catch our first majestic glimpse of Machu Picchu before the clouds take over.
3. Stepping back to a simpler time at Inle Lake and lazily biking through the moonscape of deserted Bagan temples in fascinating Myanmar/Burma.
2. Penguins (all things Antarctica for that matter...).
1. Conquering the Tiger's Nest in Bhutan... and hearing that one word response to my question that changed my life...

On the wish list for the next 365: Turkey, Nigeria, China, Ecuador, Israel/Palestine, and ..........?

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Dear Post-Conflict, (Apparently) I’ve Missed You

Rising above Adult Disneyland (i.e. Dubai), it suddenly dawns on me that I’m on a flight to Kabul. Four days ago I was in Cuzco enjoying roasted guinea pig and the finer points of lunchtime cocktails. Today I’m on my way back to post-conflict.

For someone not naturally inclined to thrill seeking (see here), having Iraqi, South Sudanese, and now Afghan visas in my passport may seem counter-intuitive. Some people (many of whom are sporting khaki cargo pants, crew cuts and ballistic sunglasses on this very Safi Airways flight) seem to thrive off of post-conflict environments, seeking them out perhaps for the same reasons they liked roller coasters as children. Not to mention that the money one can earn in a place like Afghanistan is nothing to scoff at and, in some places at least (thankfully not where I’m going), thrills and close calls are a dime a dozen.

Or maybe they are more like me (though I did leave my khakis at home this trip). I’d be perfectly ok never experiencing the inner workings of an RPG attack, money is important though not everything and roller coasters still give me the willies.

I was lucky enough to get my first bit of field cred in 2009 at a time when ‘coalition of the willing’ troops still maintained outposts on large swaths of heavily guarded Iraqi land. That first overseas posting is ever important for a young international and it doesn’t hurt that it was in an area of key US foreign policy importance.

But as charming as towns like dusty Hillah or sandy Ramadi were, it was my colleagues that made me want to stay despite the lack of freedom and other inconveniences. A proud people, my Iraqi friends embraced me as one of their own, regularly inviting me to their homes and family festivities. They threw parties for us and, through our project, dedicated their lives to improving the lots of their neighbors often at great risk.

Although one will always hear stories of shenanigans that permeate post-conflict environments (Afghanistan and Iraq are by no means exceptions), I’ve heard similarly glowing things about the people of Afghanistan from friends and from books. From the ever-controversial “Three Cups of Tea” and “The Places in Between” to “The Kite Runner” and “The Photographer”, a common theme is the decency of Afghans and their treatment of guests as family. Add to this ethnic diversity, quality tea and the physical beauty of snow-capped mountains on the border between ‘middle’ and ‘east’… needless to say I’m looking forward to it!

This morning I saw a CNN special on Iraq: Ten Years On where Arwa Damon returns to the neighborhoods she visited while embedded with US troops. No helmet, no armored vest, just an uncovered western woman walking the streets of Fallujah and Baghdad, re-interviewing folks she met under fire all those years ago. I’d love to take Lauren back to Hillah and Ramadi one day, finally able to accept my former colleagues' dinner offer. One can only hope the day when this will finally be possible is approaching.

And perhaps one day in the not-so-distant future, the same will be true about Afghanistan.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

In the Footsteps of the Incas

I am fully convinced that the best way to see Machu Picchu is via the Inca Trail.

There were times during the four-day, three-night trek through the mountains of Peru that these convictions were a bit shaky. But arriving tired, sweaty and a bit wet at the Sun Gate before 7am on the fourth day after a 40+km, four-day hike to see the glorious Inca city below… words can not do justice to that feeling.

To those, like me, who have yearned to see Machu Picchu (literally “Old City” in the local Quechua language, not to be confused with Machu ‘Pichu’ which apparently means *ahem* old male genitalia), I highly recommend getting into shape and braving the Inca Trail. Topping out at just under 14k ft at the Dead Woman’s Pass (based on the shapes of the rocks, not on historical events) on day 2, the daily hikes are stunning. Literally breathtaking. If you go in a big group like ours, a ridiculous amount of porters and guides (seriously, at times it felt like we were going on a colonial expedition in Rhodesia) make sure that you only have to worry about getting yourself–and your daypack of course–to the finish. When you arrive at the campsite your tent will already be erected and water will be boiling just in time for a nice hot cup of coca tea and some popcorn.

But back to the walking. The copious amounts of walking.

Littered with smaller ruins along the way showcasing systems of infrastructure, culture, transportation and communication unknown elsewhere in the ancient world, the trail is sometimes gradually up and down, oftentimes not so gradually up and down. Not for the faint of heart/breath; hence the whole getting in shape thing. Apparently one porter made it the whole length of our trail (about the equivalent of a marathon) in 3 hours, 40 minutes; needless to say were weren't going that fast. The vistas along the way showcased, as our guides pointed out several times, the copious and varied ‘flora and fauna’ that can change at every turn. Peru is, in a word, beautiful.

And it all builds towards the final views of Machu Picchu. An homage to the gods. A place of serenity nestled atop a mountain. A miraculous feat of ancient ingenuity. A chance to use a western toilet.

Sure, it rained on us (unfortunately Lauren’s spring break didn’t line up with the dry season in Peru). Yes, at times the altitude thumped my head (though 3 days acclimatization in lovely Cuzco certainly helped). Naturally, running down the stone paths pretending to be Quechua porters may not have been the smartest idea in the world. And of course, our collective smell after several days with no showers made even the llamas cringe.

But that’s what made arriving in Machu Picchu on that final day that much better. We worked hard for it. We… well, some of us at least… sweat for it. We mended blisters and fought colds for it. We woke early and walked hours and hours each day for it. We earned it.

Highly, highly, highly... times infinity... recommend it!

Photos from our trip can be found here.

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Long Look in the Mirror: A Practitioner’s Reflections on Development Reform

Excerpt from my guest post to Harvard's International Development Conference blog. 
At the risk of irrel­e­vancy and/or obso­les­cence, devel­op­ment as we know it must change. 
Shrinking gov­ern­ment bud­gets, aus­ter­ity mea­sures, and lin­ger­ing finan­cial crises around the world mean that fewer resources are avail­able to main­tain roads and gov­ern­ment pro­grams domes­ti­cally, much less con­tribute to poverty alle­vi­a­tion inter­na­tion­ally. With less money to achieve more, we have to make aid smarter and more efficient... 
...The list of reasons why change must adapt to a changing world is long; it is obvious why development must change. 
What is not so clear is how.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

An Ode to First Ladies & the New Normal

As often happens, dinner with friends last week got me thinking...

Being as it was the week of Barry O's second inauguration and I was sitting at a table of unabashed liberals, spirits were high. And since a very vocal half of the table was women, it was natural that a Michelle Obama love fest ensued.

Yes, she is a style icon. Yes, "Michelle Obama arms" is a thing. Yes, we all love J Crew too! And the bangs are... well... you can't win 'em all I guess.

But it was the rest of the conversation that really got me thinking.

Since moving to the US in 2000, I've only had the chance to 'get to know' two ladies in the White House: Laura and Michelle. I always liked Laura and will continue to do so. Even at the lowest points of her husband's popularity, America agreed - we liked Laura. A sweet, genuine mother of two daughters my age, a librarian dedicated to improving educational opportunities for all, and a devoted wife. She's safe. She's caring. She's a UT grad. Honestly, in a lot of ways she reminds me of my own mother and I'll always look to her with motherly affection.

But I can't help but think, for young women in 2013, that Laura represents the end of a largely bygone era and Michelle the beginning of tomorrow. To our parents and their parents, the societal (and sometimes institutional) limits to what a woman could and could not do were ever-present. A woman was expected to do X, Y, and Z in support of her family and in line with societal expectations. Some did buck this trend and blazed the trail for women's equality. They were labeled pioneers, hippies, revolutionaries, feminists, etc. Anything but 'normal'.

Maybe it's a result of my recent time as a 'house fiancee' (cooking, cleaning and doing laundry while Lauren studies), but I feel like times, they are a changin'.

Sure, women still don't get equal pay for equal work in a lot of cases. Young women undoubtedly face more obstacles than do young men when entering certain professions. Whether women should be allowed to fight in combat is still an issue. A glass ceiling of sorts may indeed still exist. However, for my friends at least (which, admittedly, my friends in DC and Cambridge probably aren't representative of the broader US), it's less a matter of empowerment/women's liberation and more a new societal norm.

Enter Michelle Obama. She was Barry's boss back when he was still going by Barry. She's a dominating figure, and I'm not just talking about her physique. She could very easily be the breadwinner in the family but has chosen to let her husband do what's best for the country, thus putting her own career on hold. Doing so was obviously her decision in equal partnership with... well... her partner (i.e. husband). She's well-educated, incredibly smart and the only thing (probably) holding her back from entering elected life herself is her brutal honesty and inability to disguise her true feelings for the sake of political gain. She's a tough but loving parent and perhaps the only person able to bring the leader of the free world back down to earth at dinner time.

Michelle is an inspiration to a generation of women (one of whom I'm proud to call my fiancee) who expect and deserve an equal role in a relationship. She has set a new standard not only for future first ladies but for what it means to be a woman in the 21st century. She's an inspiration not only to women, but to men... including me.

On a side note... here's hoping that the next 'First' in the White House will be a gentleman?!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Antarctica the Beautiful

There's something intoxicating about the open ocean. Or maybe that's just the Dramamine talking... Either way, crossing Sir Francis Drake's Passage meant being a small speck of existence traipsing through a vast, never-ending ocean of bone-chilling water for two days. An awe-inspiring, and simultaneously terrifying, thought.

On a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being capsize worthy waves), we were told by the crew that our passage warranted a zero. "Drake Lake" they called it, seemingly savoring the break from normally choppy seas. No complaints, and more importantly no sea-sickness, from our side!

In less than two days, the South Shetland Islands (part of or not part of "Antarctica" depending on who you ask) was visible off the bow. After a year of (literally) circumnavigating the globe with Lauren, we were in reach of the ever-elusive seventh continent. A dream of mine for as long as I can remember, we were about to have completed all seven in just ten months... I'm getting jet-lagged just thinking about it.

"So... how was Antarctica?" seems to be the common question upon our return; to which "amazing" seems to be our standard response. We could also say unbelievable, extraordinary, outstanding, and any other superlative you can think of. Sadly, for those of you wishing to live vicariously through us on this one, the vistas, wildlife, and indeed smells are wholly indescribable.

To their credit, G Adventures did a stellar job of keeping us entertained with history and wildlife lessons during our time in the Drake, but they (nor anyone else for that matter) could not have prepared us for what we were about to experience.

I might as well get this out of the way since it's probably all you want to know anyways: yes, penguins are even more fascinating and cute than you currently think. Besides their stench (whenever I smell sewage back in civilization I look around for penguins), their habits, lifestyle and utter disregard for humans is wonderfully awesome. Awkward on land and graceful in the water, they seem interested in, but not bothered by, our carefully controlled/coordinated human contact. After my 1000th picture of a nesting Gentoo, I forced myself to put the camera down and simply observe my new friends. Waddling up to me, Freddy the Penguin would look up, then down, then over his shoulder as if giving the nod to his friends...

"This one's ok. Smells a bit, but he's cool." If you think you like penguins now, you'll like them more after meeting them on their turf. I might or might not have tried to sneak one back with me in my carry-on...

Besides Freddy and his friends, the whales, the seals, the clouds, the mountains, the vast expanses of frozen nothingness, and the periodic bone-chilling winds all literally took my breath away. In a challenging photographic environment (bright whites and harsh contrasts), it was all I could do to keep up. Could I really capture the amazing teal of that iceberg, or the vastness of the scenery, or the thoughts of a leopard seal, or the feel of the Antarctic sun on my face? Can I adequately answer the 'how was Antarctica' question in this blog without trivializing it and minimizing its grandeur?

Alas, the answer to both questions is simply 'no'. Photos don't do it justice and words place finality on the infinite. Nothing would really do Antarctica justice. Except, of course, experiencing it yourself.

Antarctica in it's current form may not be around forever. So you might want to get on that...

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

How to Travel to Antarctica

This post discusses the mechanics of getting to Antarctica the way we did it, offering recommendations, tips, general thoughts, etc. For photos, click here. For my impressions of our trip, click here... 

With Lauren in grad school studying an obnoxious amount of hours each week, I was in charge of finding how we could get to Antarctica. Plus it’s been my dream to go so I was happy to oblige.

So, as any self-respecting person under the age of 70 would do, I started by googling “how to travel to Antarctica” and ended up selecting Expedition Trips to book the journey. They were very helpful and pleasant, essentially making the process pretty easy and straightforward. But there were a few things that I wished I knew before we booked.

Our ship was the M/S Expedition, a recently converted ferry owned by another (rival) tourism group: G Adventures. A company that generally specializes in on-land adventures (i.e. Machu Piccu), the Expedition is the only cruise ship owned by G. And it’s obviously their pride and joy. The boat staff is a friendly mix of seasoned expedition-ists and energetic young people, a demographic mirrored by the passengers. When I think cruise I generally think wheel chairs and walkers; not the case on the Expedition. Plenty of mid-20 to mid-40 ish type folks and a few friends our age we’ll keep up with in the future for sure.

Although this isn’t usually how we roll (i.e. we usually practice 'shoot from the hip' tourism), we may look into G Adventures for our next adventure. Apparently the company tries to fill the gap (they used to be called "Gap Adventures" but apparently had to change due to some lawsuit or something) between plush all-inclusive tours and backpacking; thus making far-flung, previously unattainably expensive journeys... well... attainable. Plus, they pride themselves on quirkiness and I'm a sucker for anything that makes life a bit more interesting.

What I didn’t know is that we could have (and arguably should have) booked directly through G Adventures. Their online marketing folks aren’t as good as Expedition Trips apparently because I don’t ever remember seeing them on the Google search results, travel blogs, etc. They might want to get on that. In addition to it being potentially cheaper, by not booking with G we missed out on a few things (like not having a welcome packet when we arrived in Ushuaia - our port of embarkation) initially.

Angel on one shoulder: "Expedition Trips helped us book other things like horseback riding, hotels and flights if we needed them to..."
Devil on other shoulder: "Yeah, but if I'm going to be booking my own flights/hotels, why go with a middle man if you can book directly from the source?"

It's a fair point, especially for 'shoot from the hip'-pers like us.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

A Very Merry 'Vest'mas...

...otherwise known as 'Erol Meets the Future In-Laws'. All of them. The full Vest clan. In rare form.

Lauren’s mother (maiden/code name Vest) has one sister and three brothers, all of whom have children and planned to be at a rented Texas beach house at one point or another in between Christmas and New Years. There were also the ‘plus ones’ (of which I am a member) helping bring the total participation to somewhere around thirty. I tried to do a physical count at one time but failed. Ever try to count ants hovering around something sugary?

Our stilted home away from home was in Surfside Beach, a corner of Texas somewhere between Galveston and nowhere. It’s a place for massive refineries in view of offshore platforms burning hundred meter flames high into the night sky. It’s a place for hurricanes eager to wreak havoc. It’s a place for washed-up hippie dudes who find Jesus and own a surf shop. And, for one week, it’s a place for the Vests.

A little apprehension goes a long way towards managing expectations. I was slightly worried about being bored or voicing some of those thoughts that are best left in one’s head (you know what I’m talking about). I had been told to prepare for practical jokes, contentious politics, philosophizing, and perhaps even a few relatives wondering “who is this random Turkish guy that stole a cousin away?”

Thankfully for me, Lauren hasn’t brought many of her significant others home in the past and I don’t have any facial tattoos… though I do have an unpronounceable last name. This was going to be tough.

Turns out my apprehension was as ill-founded as it was helpful in my expectation-setting mental process. Not only did the Vest clan embrace me with open arms, I immediately felt at home in the Monet-like (‘good from far but far from good’) rental, chatting up this aunt or that cousin or that uncle as if I’d known them for years.

There were the occasional dalliances into politics. There was so much talk about baseball I felt like I needed a hotdog. There were Texas accents that couldn’t have been real… except they were real. There was the pursuit of a better joke or jab, a constant game of one-uppance I repeatedly lost.

And of course there was the irony-filled two-hour debate on who should be considered the most competitive person in the family. Epic.

But above all there was singing, dancing, and laughter. They’ve been through tragedy and celebration. They’ve rejoiced and wept. They’ve gone away and come home. But they’ve always done it together. As a family.

If you’re looking for a recipe for a successful family reunion-style vacation, look no further than the Vests: a strong, loving and unconditionally awesome family I can now call my own.

And while you’re looking, you might even be lucky enough to witness a cousin vs. cousin dance-off...!