I was fortunate to work with author Anisa Mahmoud Ulrich to help self-publish her book, Lifting the Chaderi: My Life as an Afghan Refugee.

Lifting the Chaderi: My Life as an Afghan Refugee

It was a great experience and I highly recommend the book – we have many positive reviews on Amazon, and it’s available both in paperback and for Kindle.

“Lifting the Chaderi” refers to lifting the veil to reveal unspoken cultural attitudes. Anisa’s candid story documents her change from a shy girl with a speech impediment to a strong woman who escapes not only an escalating war but an abusive relationship.

We had the amazing experience of first publishing the book at Sacramento Library’s I Street Press on an Espresso Book Machine. If you’ve never seen one of these it’s basically a huge copy machine that prints an actual book! It was exciting and we were interviewed during this process – see the video below. Anisa and I appear around minute 3:01.


Cacao fruit: Where chocolate comes from.
Cacao fruit: can you believe this is where chocolate comes from?

Top 10 most memorable foods eaten while traveling:

  1. Giant sea snails cooked on a barbecue – we had to use a stick to twirl them out, almost 1 meter in length (Miyazaki, Japan)
  2. Raw horse (Kobe, Japan)
  3. Ants that taste like lemon and *pop* in your mouth (jungle near Tena, Ecuador)
  4. Sour cane (caña agria) that is a remedy for diabetes and dehydration (also in the jungle near Tena, Ecuador
  5. Chicken soup served with the feet in it (Tena, Ecuador)
  6. Cacao  – the chalky, purple seeds taste nothing like the delicious chocolate it eventually becomes (Tena, Ecuador)
  7. Warm, raw milk, straight from the cow (Kızıltepe, Turkey)
  8. Snails again, but this time the small, land version, collected that morning and prepared with lots of butter (Crete, Greece) 
  9. Ouzo - (ούζο) I will never forget the first time I drank Ouzo (Greece, 1989)
  10. Shochu - distilled from sweet potatoes, shochu is another beverage I will never forget and it will never forget me (Miyazaki, Japan 1990)

What have you eaten and lived to tell about it?


Dear Friends,

The Japanese Community Center of Northern California (http://jcccnc.org/), the Japantown Merchants Association and also the National Japanese American Historical Society here in San Francisco have set up a Northern Japan Earthquake Relief Fund. You can donate directly on the Facebook Causes page at http://www.causes.com/causes/590211-northern-japan-earthquake-relief-fund

They did this for the Kobe earthquake in 1995 and sent $600,000 in cash and supplies. They work directly with local NGOs in Japan – the money is wired directly to them. I would recommend this as a good place to donate funds if you’re so inclined.

Also learn more about local events, matching funds, and recent donors on the JCCCNC Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Japanese-Cultural-and-Community-Center-of-Northern-California-JCCCNC/342392495071

JCCCNC director Paul Osaki has given an update on the progress of the fund here:http://kokuajapan.org/2011/03/16/update-from-jcccncs-paul-osaki/

They’ve already sent $130,000 to Japan.

Also, The National Japanese American Citizens League has joined with Direct Relief International to support the relief effort through the Japan Relief and Recovery Fund.

In short, if you wish to donate, please consider giving to either of these combined relief funds. Thanks.


I may not be the expert on surviving long-haul flights — leave that to Independent Traveler and read 10 Ways to Survive a Long-Haul Flight. (Who knew you should take a baby aspirin before a flight to avoid blood clots? And that dreaded Deep Leg Thrombosis is mainly due to dehydration? Gatorade, people.)

But I am an Expert Packer.

People are amazed when they see that the same small REI convertible backpack/expandable bag I packed for two weeks is the one I used for one year. In fact, I recently found that it’s easier to pack for a year than it is for a two-week beach vacation.

The bag I take for 2 weeks or 52 weeks and my Reiker multi-purpose shoes.

For my two-week bag I had enough room to indulge in 3 bathing suits (they’re small) two party dresses and a couple of outfits I didn’t even use. What’s my secret? There are two: First, pack things that have multiple purposes. Second, avoid packing things you can beg, borrow or buy once you arrive.

Tip #1: Coconut oil. I brought a 4 oz. jar of it to the beach vacation, where we stayed in a villa with a kitchen. I ate it, cooked with it, used it on my hair as a conditioner and on my skin as a moisturizer — that’s four uses.

Tip #2: Don’t pack a towel unless you absolutely need to. Usually you can get one wherever you’re going. Youth hostels and drugstores have an abundance of towels you can buy for $1 or $2. If I must pack one, I carry a small REI rapidly drying towel.

Tip #3: Use the 80/20 rule. You know, if you look through your closet you only use about 20% of your clothes 80% of the time? I keep that in mind and just pack what I’ve been wearing all week. This is not the time to bring out clothes you’re uncomfortable in. They’ve been hanging there for a reason.

Tip #4: Laundry in the shower. Now here’s something weird that I do. I pack 3-5 pairs of underwear made of rapidly-drying nylon. You have to wash them, right? And you have to wash your body, too, right? So I take a pair of those nylon undies into the shower and they double as a bath scrubby. We’re both getting clean! I know, it sounds strange, but it’s very practical and one less thing you have to pack (scrubby).

Tip #5: If you don’t need it for the first week, consider not bringing it at all. Examples: Extra contact lens solution, shampoo, toothpaste, other toiletries. Bring enough for the first 7 days and chances are you can buy it or borrow it once you’ve run out.

Tip #6: A nice, comfy, big scarf is absolutely mandatory for a woman. I got mine  for $7 at the local variety store. It’s purple and white and pretty. Planes and hotels are cold. I use mine to keep my head and neck warm. On the beach you can use it for a cover up or even to lie on. It dresses up any outfit and if it’s washable will serve you forever. Also, you wear this instead of packing it, so it leaves room for other stuff!

Tip #7: Shoes are the hardest item to select. Again, go for multipurpose. For warm climates I use a pair of Reiker shoes that I bought in Istanbul. I don’t think this model is available anymore, but Reiker offers a huge variety — you’re sure to find something appropriate for your travels. I like these for summer because they’re slip-on, fit perfectly, and work great for walking around all day or using at the beach. This is a shoe that will pass for use with a casual summer dress, shorts or with jeans.

In colder climates or in winter, I wear one big pair of boots and pack the Reikers in my bag. It may be a hassle taking the big boots off at the airport but that’s one essential item I can’t borrow or buy when I arrive (especially because I have big feet).

Happy travels!


There is a group of idyllic islands a short hour-long ferry ride from Istanbul. Turkish citizens and foreign tourists go there for fresh air, sea water and a retreat from the grime of 15 million people.

They are the Princes’ Islands, or Adalar. No cars are allowed there, just horses, buggies and bicycles. It’s a place to relax, swim, eat at restaurants and sip tea by the harbor.

One day, after getting off the ferry, there was a commotion on the normally quiet island.

Several swimmers wearing their street clothes were out in the Sea of Marmara. They were frantically looking for someone.

The boy they were looking for had been on a break from his job. He was a waiter at one of the seaside restaurants. I could imagine the impromptu laughter, the “let’s go for a ride!” as his friend picked him up. The boy probably couldn’t swim well. He had fallen into the sea when a rented yacht accidentally rammed his little silver motor boat. Now, he was still underwater and swimmers had been looking for him for 20 minutes.

“You’re a strong swimmer – you should jump in and also look for him,” my friend said. I hesitated. The sea was green and frothy. I had swum in it many times but now couldn’t see deeper than the first foot of the stormy water. Sometimes very calm, today it was fierce. How could anybody find him in that?

Miraculously, they did. They pulled him into a small motor boat and rapidly brought him onshore. A doctor was waiting. The body was limp, and probably dead. I noticed a little girl in front of me, watching, a finger in her mouth. She was probably only 5 years old. We distracted her away from the front of the circle where perhaps 20 people gathered around the body and to the back where she couldn’t see. We watched for several minutes while the doctor and two men tried to revive him. I could feel that we all hoped he would be OK.

A man was yelling and pointing at the big boat out in the harbor, maybe 50 feet away from us. Several people were crying. I kept quiet and gave room to the grieving and angry.

The yacht that caused the boy’s death was rented by American tourists.

The Americans in the yacht had not jumped in to try to save him. They had thrown him a lifesaver. But the boy, probably around 19 years old, had not been able to grab the lifesaver. He went underwater and did not come back up. Or maybe he simply hit his head on the boat as he fell out and was immediately unconscious.

I started to understand why the angry man was yelling and pointing.

“Jumping into the Sea of Marmara to save a drowning man could likely wind up in an additional drowning”– I imagined that’s what the Americans thought. But the folks screaming from dry land were in misery, looking up at the yacht bobbing in the harbor for an explanation. It looked like an explanation was not going to happen.

Another man was screaming in Turkish. I glanced up at the Americans standing in the towering safety of the yacht’s bow, looking confused and immobile. A girl in a bikini. A tanned man in shorts holding something. All eyes were on the boy now lying on the paved shore, just alongside the restaurant tables.

One man was massaging the boy’s back. Another was holding up his arms. The doctor started to administer CPR. But we could see that he would not be revived.

I could picture the boy there, not 30 minutes earlier, waiting on tourists just like the ones in the yacht. I wondered what would happen to them. I wondered what would happen to me if the angry crowd knew I was another American.

What I noticed most was that the boy seemed very peaceful. He was still in his waiter uniform – black pants, white button-down shirt. There was no suffering on his face. He was gone. All the suffering was now left to his family and friends on the shore.


Panama was fantastic. But it wasn’t the beach volleyball, the fresh ceviche, the tropical weather, or the Abuelo rum that made the trip special (although all of that helped). It was spending an entire week with extended family and friends. I loved being called “Aunt Lisa” by all of Joe’s buddies, who I’ve known since they were little 10-year-olds. Now they’re almost 30 and really fantastic people. And Billy Frank, Jr.? To have a whole week for long conversations with him was a dream. And to top it all, it was a fantastic wedding. Fireworks and vows…and a great party afterwards, with amazing food, a combination of Carnaval and Cumbia. Congratulations Joe and Joann. I’m so proud of you and all that you did for us. Thank you for the opportunity to be together and for all the fantastic memories we share!


Dr. Joel Robles Uribe and I in 2008. We had not seen each other for 14 years. Sadly, it was for my father's funeral.

It’s Christmas, 1993. I’m 25 and excited to be going to Mexico for the first time. With my father and his new wife, Martha, I meet my Mexican family. At the rustic little beach house in Sayulita, Martha teaches me to make ceviche and shows me how to wash my clothes by hand. Two Guadalajaran brothers invite me to take a road trip with them and I end up staying five months, three of them in Guadalajara teaching English at a bilingual kindergarten and volunteering in the Department of Preventive Medicine at Guadalajara’s public hospital, Hospital civil.

That last part was made possible by Dr. Joel Robles Uribe.

He is my stepmother’s brother, mi tío político. The night before asking him how I can staying in Mexico and volunteer, I cram, studying my little dictionary — my Spanish was pretty bad. Three years in high school but not much practice speaking, and tío Joel didn’t speak English.

Querio ser voluntaria,” is what I manage to say. Gracious man that he is, he worked it all out. “Why don’t you volunteer here, in the hospital (where he is a doctor)?” I was so excited! I was going to stay in Guadalajara and volunteer! I would be so useful! The Hospital Civil needed me; it didn’t even have soap in the bathrooms.

The nurses looked at me sideways and said little. I saw no other volunteers in the whole place, and I don’t think they knew what to make of me. They probably thought I was some spoiled relative they had to put up with, in between doing their nails and taking their hour desayuno breaks. To me, this was a hospital? I never saw such leisurely nurses. Such patient patients. Just waiting, never complaining, never in a rush.  I wanted to run around and get things done. I bought soap for the bathrooms; they were all gone the next day. I worked with the Oficina de planificación familiar. We put up family planning and contraceptive posters and they were all gone the next day, too.

My Spanish was so bad I didn’t know how to ask what had happened. I assumed the administration took them down. Or patients stole them.

Dr. Joel put me on blood pressure duty. I got to take patients’ blood pressure and dictate the numbers to the nurses, who dutifully wrote them down. Then one day Dr. Joel, who knew I had studied nutrition, said to me:

“I want you to prepare a talk, in Spanish, about controlling blood pressure through lifestyle and diet.”

What?” I said.

“You’ll deliver this talk to patients in the waiting room in one week.”

Gulp. I could barely say “la presión de la sangre es 110 sobre 80.” I worked hard. I studied my little dictionary every night. I recalled as much as I could about the topic, wrote it in English and then translated it into Spanish.

The day of the talk, about 10 patients were  in the waiting room, as usual, with plenty of time to kill. I spoke for a minute about controlling high blood pressure.

Uh….una forma de controlar la presión de la sangre es hacer ejercicio…” I faltered, nervous.

One of the female patients chimed in, “como bailar…?”

I said, “Yes! Like dancing!!”

From there the ‘talk’ was interactive and fun, and the patients really helped my struggling Spanish. I like to think I left them with a couple tips for being healthier – or, at the very least, provided them with some good gringo entertainment.

When I returned to the states 5 months later, with passable español I secured a bilingual job essentially doing the same thing Dr. Joel had just trained me to do. I worked in public health and delivered talks about pesticide safety. I owe so much to him for pushing me beyond my comfort level, for providing me with such an excellent opportunity, and helping me feel useful in meaningful work.

An Homenaje en vida, or Living Tribute was given to Dr. Joel in San Blas, Mexico in October, 2010. An interview with him, in Spanish, is published in the Periódico Panorama Nayarita. From this I learned many details of his political and personal life as a doctor that I found so fascinating and touching, I wanted to share it with you. I have translated it to English (any errors are my own) so you can know a bit more about this very interesting and gifted mentor. Please see the English translation here.


Mardin, Turkey

I was in Manhattan Beach over Thanksgiving, sitting in the sun and chatting with a pleasant, blond woman at Coffee Bean. I detected an accent, but being the polite traveler that I am, waited a full 20 minutes before asking where she’s originally from (I figured she gets that question a lot). We had been discussing languages and travel, and so it was the inevitable next question.

“The Middle East.” She replies vaguely.

“Any particular country?” I ask.

“Syria.”

“Oh!” I say, “I was near Syria, and almost crossed the border from Eastern Turkey. I was in Mardin.”

“Oh, Mardin! Yes. Mardin  – sometimes we used to go over the border to Turkey to shop.”

“What city are you from?” I ask. It turns out she is from Aleppo, the largest city in Syria, and perhaps one of the oldest cities in the world. I tell her I almost went there.

She says, “I tell some Americans I’m from the Middle East and they say, “Where’s that?”

I am embarrassed for my fellow Americans, and a little shocked. “They really say that?” I ask.

I describe my travels through Turkey and the Balkans and when I’m done, she asks me, “And why do you do that?”

The question catches me off guard – I’m used to getting something like “Oh, I’d like to go there!” or, “I was in Italy last year.”

I don’t think anyone has ever actually asked me, “Why do you do that?”

I give her sort of a global answer about America’s size and influence, and if I really want to know what’s going on outside of America, I have to physically go there.

She looks at me and frowns slightly. “Most Americans want to see other US states. They’re not really interested in the rest of the world,” she says.

Now don’t get me started…but, well, she’s right. However, you can find this in Switzerland, too. A woman I met in Zürich said, “You’ve seen more of Europe than I have.” I met plenty of Bulgarians who had never been to Turkey (and vice versa) although they are neighbors (and have plenty of opinions about each other). And as for me, I’ve never been to the Grand Canyon or Disneyworld. Most foreign tourists have seen more of the USA than I have.

However, Europeans do know where the Middle East is. And most of the rest of the world knows a) our state capitals b) our language and c) that Arnold Schwarzenegger is the governator.

I try again to answer her question. “I enjoy meeting people from different cultures, learning a little of their history, their language.” She still seems mystified.

And so am I: I mean, why do I travel? Really?

Why do I take a bus to some random country and stand out in the freezing cold at the border while my luggage is being searched? Why do I haggle a fee with a psychotic chain-smoking taxi driver to take us over the border from Albania into Montenegro? Why do I buy a second-hand coat in Sarajevo and give my North Face jacket to a Roma woman sitting on the street who wants money instead? Why do I meet a friend of a friend of a friend and travel to Crete and eat freshly cooked snails? And why do I try to hitchhike in Croatia with two Australians one of whom is so bizarre (endearingly so, but drivers don’t know that) no one will ever pick us up…(that’s another story)?

I could give many answers. But let me put it this way: In all the above scenarios, did something bad happen to me? No. I made lifelong friends and lifelong stories. Adventures that will stay with me until I’m too senile to remember, and then I’ll have this blog to remind me. Strike one against American xenophobia. Against human xenophobia, for that matter.

But, if she asked me again, I would say this:

“If I had not traveled to the region near the border between Turkey and Syria, I would never be having this conversation with you. I would not understand anything about where you are from; I could not visualize the dry, arid landscape. I would have no idea what it was like for you to leave that part of the world and acculturate yourself to Los Angeles, California. I would have had a blank look on my face when you said, ‘I’m from Syria.’ I would have had to be one of those Americans who say, ‘The Middle East? Where’s that??'”


In more non-news, Yahoo! tempted me to read the titillating headline about Michelle Obama somehow forcing a religiously conservative Muslim man to touch her.

I probably wouldn’t have been interested except that I once found myself in a similar position.

Istanbul is huge city. A confusing mix and match of shiny polyester- headscarved-women in Turkish hijab, non-religious city dwellers who look like they could be from New York or Seattle, transvestites walking the streets after midnight, Arab tourists wearing full, white robes, and women with tight jeans and high heels as can be found in any Eastern European city. And of course, there are religious conservatives.

I had not met one, knowingly, until I went into a bookshop and was introduced to the owner. I noticed that prior to this introduction he avoided looking at me. He also kept his hands behind his back. When finally he acknowledged me, it was to produce a small book as a gift, entitled “What is Islam?” I assumed the book was published at his shop. In a gesture of thanks I extended my hand to shake his. His hands remained behind his back and I awkwardly put mine back down to my side. It was later explained to me that his religion forbade him to touch women. Apparently, if he were to touch me, he would be unclean and would have to wash before he could pray again.

Being previously unaware of this custom, I was a little taken aback and offended. A woman can make a man “unclean?”

Washing in Islam is a big deal. If followed properly, washing oneself occurs at 5 times a day if not more, before prayer and after certain activities. Put into an historical context, perhaps there were serious reasons to encourage personal hygiene — like during the pre-hand-sanitizer, 14th century plague that wiped out half of Europe perhaps?

But in this case, the video shows it all: the Indonesian minister was clearly eager to shake Michelle Obama’s hand. Who wouldn’t be?


Rolf Potts is traveling around the world without any luggage. A few months ago, he issued his “Reader challenge #1: Lighten your load (and win a free plane ticket).” Some woman named Victoria won.

The challenge was to explain, in 500 words or less, how you will lighten your load in the next 12 months.

Some people talked about using travel vests, leaving luggage at home, or discarding old magazines hoarded over the years.

Here’s what I wrote:

“I will travel lighter by listening. I’ll be curious. I’ll discard my ‘tourist’ persona and save a lot of weighty mental-baggage fees. I’ll listen to stories from the Bulgarian musician who played in the Soviet Orchestra, the Turkish taxi driver who’s trying to extort our money, the Australian travelers who got their passports nicked in Barcelona. How about lightening the load for others when I travel? That is what I’ll do over the next 12 months. If there’s a way to help someone else be lighter I will do it. I will listen to their stories of war in Bosnia. I will ask questions. I will make sure to be a human being, reminded that the only thing that separates my brand of suffering from this person’s suffering is…geography.”

* * * * *

How do you travel light?

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