Friday, July 16, 2010

eyes re-opened

Everywhere. Something new. My eyes are opened and re-opened again.

Women on the streets carrying enormous loads of items for sale on their heads. Young boys carrying heavy buckets of bread.

I went for a run on the beach and a boy started to run alongside me. He only began talking once I said something to him. He spoke little English. He came from Guinea. He wants to learn English. He sleeps under the bush where I started my run. He kindly helped me find public transportation back to my home as it was getting dark.

In my interviews with the counselors here at the Center for Victims of Torture I’ve come to learn that likely all of these individuals have been trafficked. Either voluntarily or involuntarily they left their home up-country or in a neighboring country to follow false promises of education, skills training… a better life in the city. And here they are now, exploited or homeless having run away from the person who brought them here.

Those exploited may work day and night for their trafficker handing over all money in exchange, perhaps, for a place to sleep.

Those who run, without education or skills, often end up on the streets, committing small crimes to survive, or giving sex in exchange for money, food or a place to sleep. Re-trafficking is not uncommon.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. An iceberg of poverty, war, torture, trauma… “So many of my brothers suffer” one counselor told me in an interview.

Freetown. How ironic.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Boliva, Peru and off to the Ecuadorian Amazon

After an exciting start in La Paz, Andrea and I made our way to Copacabana on the shore of Lake Titicaca. It was everything we had hoped for. A heavenly hotsel overlooking the town and the lakeshore, sunset hikes up the hillside, sunshine and great company. Along with three Brits we picked up in a restaurant our 5-some took off on a day long hike and then a tiny motorboat ride out to La Isla Del Sol, where the Inca Sun God was born. More hiking, a crazy festival, and a chilly night before trekking on back to Copacabana.

From Copacabana we began our real adventure... getting into Peru. Where to begin... It took some investigating for us to figure out why, all of a sudden, bus companies were telling us we couldn't get all the way to Cusco when the day before it had been possible. Protests are the norm in Peru, but we didn't realize that we were heading into protests that were, well, a bit beyond the norm. We were told that if we took a bus to Sicuani, Peru, we would have to get out and walk through a road block, but that we would have a bus waiting on the other side for us. At that point we didn't even know what the protest was about let alone the fact that it was growing by the minute. The government is trying to privatize water in the Amazon (at least that's what we think is going on). Can't really blame people for protesting.

2 bus changes and we made it to Secuani. Got out, walked over the road block/barbed wire with protestors yelling "gringos go home, you climb Machu Picchu while we work like mulse" (or something along those lines) while holding their noses as we passed. Interesting. 30 minutes speed-walking alongside a long line of lorries lined up, stalled by the blockades. We found our bus as it was getting dark, but the driver refused to go. Too dangerous. Rock throwers. Road blocks and protests in all of the 6 districts between Secuani and Cusco. GREAT. Long story short, after hiding out on the bus trying to figure out our options the bus made a go for it. Around 11 the long line of lorrise generally gave it a go in the hopes that the rock throwers would have started to fall asleep. So the bus filled up and we took off. Made it through the first 5 districts and got stuck at the 6th. Eventually it became clear that the protests were getting worse instead of better and if we didn't try walking across the last road block to get a bus on the other side, then we might have a 6 hour walk in the opposite direction in the mornin. 2am and we went for it. A bus was on the other side. Salvation. We made it to Cusco by 5 am. Our 8 hour journey turned into a 22 hour one. Talk about a bonding experience for the 5 of us. One of my favorite moments was during our 2am sprint across the roadblock after being told not to talk and to take hats off so we didn't look like tourists... we see the bus ahead and Andrea hugs me and says "I'm so glad we're friends". Meeeee too :)

The experience was fascinating. I don't think that any of us felt threatened by the protestors... more so by the fact that the hold ups were an opportune moment for robbers, which thankfully, never found us. Thank goodness we got across when we did, as the protests have escalated since then. My cousin Emily, a few days later, ended up having to walk/jump on random transportation for over 12 hours during the night. Other roads have now been shut down. The military had to fend off protestors at the Cusco airport the day before we were able to fly out. Protestors got control of the railroad lines and shut down Machu Picchu the day after we made it there. The entire central region of Peru seems to be becoming increasingly cut off. It was fascinating to be very much in the midst of a strong populous movement.

One thing is for sure - people in South America act on their beliefs. This particular wave of protests must be getting a strong point across to the government by almost entirely cutting off access to the region. Who knows. I don't know nearly enough. Exciting. We were excited to get to Ecuador successfully as I have a feeling it may have become more and more difficult and it seemed like we were continually a day ahead of disaster.

That was, of course, after 4 great days in Cusco and a 5 day trek through the Andes to reach Machu Picchu. The trek was incredible and Machu Picchu... Breathtaking.

Quito, Ecuador has been a blast. Great food, incredible company as usual, incredible views of the expansive city, and now a night in the Marriot courtesy of Andrea's parents. Not that we've been roughing it all that much, but man it's great to have a big comfy bed!

Off to the Amazon in the morning. Loving every minute.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Welcome to Bolivia

2 days without sleep and I have been running on empty since my 6am arrival in La Paz. Still have yet to be let into a room in this little backpacker's hostel, which meant l had one of two options today: sit with my bag in the cold little hostel or leave my bag with all the other unattended bag to wander around the city. I chose option #2, which despite my exhaustion, proved to make for a lovely day of meandering through the streets without any particular destination. I found my way to a vibrant little market, the streets lined with people selling fruit, vegetables etc. A few great pictures that were not meant to be. I happened upon one of the main cathedrals and enjoyed some quiet time inside. I walked slowly to enjoy watching the city come to life as it got later in the morning, but also to catch my breath. The airport is at 14,000 feet here and the city is probably a good 12,000 ft. The city is beautifully tucked in between the mountains. I bought bananas, avocados, oranges, and some other fruit that I don't know the name of and made myself a delicious lunch back at the hostel before heading out again.

I ran into a protest on the main avenue. Not sure what it was about, but apparently protests are the norm. There are tons of women dressed in their traditional clothing - long braided hair and colorful blankets on their backs to carry things. Some where these little top hat things that I've never seen before. An interesting look. At one point this afternoon one of these beautiful little women ran into me and then kept bumping into me acting clueless, like she was old and lost. I did note that it was kind of weird, but didn't notice until a few moments after that my bag was open and camera gone. She was a pro. Well done little old lady. I was a little nervous about my camera breaking during this trip as every time I take a picture with the flash smoke comes out of it... I can't decide whether or not I hope that it explodes when they take their first picture. At a lose for what to do at the moment except laugh it off... because really... Andrea misses her connecting flight and is coming a day later, I've been a zombie wandering around the streets all day not allowed to check into my room yet, and my camera is already gone. It hasn't even been 24 hours! Welcome to Bolivia, where the grafiti at the airport reads "yankees go home and USAID go home"... despite it all, La Paz really is a beautiful city. Hopefully our rough start was just our way of getting the minor disasters out of our system so that the rest can all go as planned. Ha, right!

Monday, June 8, 2009


Written March 27, 2009

The Ganges sparkles with hundreds of candles floating on the water. The air is filled with the sound of bells and the music of the nightly puja ceremony. The breeze is warm and, I'm afraid, filled with a slight smokey musk coming from the cremation fires nearby. I wonder what David Whyte would write if he was sitting here...listening to, watching and breathing in the faith in this holy place.

A colorful place of chaos and total devotion. Sadhus with dreadlocks, half-clothed in orange, with red and white spiritual paint on their foreheads. Men, women and children bathing, doing laundry, drinking, worshiping the water whole-heartedly. The water, to them, is pure regardless of what anyone else says. It comes directly from God through the mountains. Small, intricate shrines line the small alleyways – the deities covered in flowers, colorful clothes and paints. People are in the water with the candles, flowers and pedals floating by as offerings to the holy river.

It really is incredible – the devotion. I think of the mosques in Cairo, but I’m still not sure that I have ever seen such a display of faith as I have seen here. Nor have I seen a body of water take such a powerful form – as though it is alive. The devotion of so many makes it feel alive… if I hold my breath, will I hear the Ganges breathe?

Although I feel this was enough of a taste for me right now, alone, I feel fortunate to have been here. A taste of India – a large gulp of the Hindu faith and the holiness of the Ganges river.



Where the earth meets the sky

"Meantime let us count our blessings - I mean those thousands of peaks, climbed and unclimbed, of every size, shape and order of difficulty, where each of us may find our own Mt. Everest" - HW Tilman

Written March 9, 2009:
I used to look up the hillside on summer trail rides, aspen tree leaves sparkling in the sunlight all around me, and I'd imagine riding to that place where the top of the hill meets the sky...I used to dream that at that place the ground turned to air and you could gracefully stride into the expansive nothingness of the atmosphere.

Every hillside, mountain top, beckoning peak, still holds the mystery of that illusion. To reach the top, where the earth meets the sky - and where you can soar beyond the ground you've always known... is that the allure of climbing mountains? To go beyond? 

The snowy, glacial peaks of the Himalayas are dramatic and stand laughing at the strength of human capacity. At the same time they beckon us forward and up - to approach, climb, and go beyond. To reach for that place where the earth meets the sky and where you are then somehow between what you once knew and what you can't even imagine. Where, in my young imagination you can step forward into the air that holds you and brings you somewhere new. 

Though these mountains are undeniably grand and, in many ways, incomprehensible, they are no different than the smaller hillsides of my youth. Riding up towards the Broadwaters through the aspen trees on well-worn and well-loved trails up, up and beyond. I can see more clearly that place where the gentle, sage-covered slope meets the sky than I can see the peaks outside the window of this tea house. Here as there. There as here... the earth meets the sky and that final step...sends you over and into the expanse of everything.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

All Kinds of Beautiful

"Running all around all around... all kinds of beautiful". You never know what you are going to get or how things will end up, but I still believe that it all happens for a reason. I attended the annual ARC  gala with my mom, dad, and Teddy in late February. At the event, a young man, who was blind and autistic, played the piano absolutely beautifully - such a gift. Dan Wilson, formerly the lead singer of Semisonic, performed his song "All Kinds of Beautiful" with the entire crowd singing along. It was one of those moments that gives you the goosebumps. Time seemed to pause momentarily and I was reminded of how lucky I am. The gift of Teddy and how he has shaped my life. The gift of my parents, sister, and grandparents - people who continually amaze and impress me and who's support is endless. The gift to be able to take this time and dedicate it to myself. I used to look at 25 as an age when I should know what I'm doing and who I am going to do it with. With the support of such incredible people, I am so lucky to be 25 and feeling all of the possibilities that come out of dreaming big. All kinds of beautiful.


I thought I had to go to India, but all I had to do was drive 45 minutes north of Boulder, Colorado to get a taste of the ashram experience. At Shoshoni I observed silence for 3 days, I turned off my phone and computer and retreated into myself. I meditated for an hour at 5am every morning, I did two yoga classes and one pranayama (breathwork) class each day, and went to an evening meditation or ceremony every night. After 3 days of silence I re-entered the world of talking and extended my stay for a week. My yoga and spiritual practices grew more in one week than it had in years before. A few major breakthroughs occurred that represent the changes that I experienced there. 

First, I realized that meditation is work. If you really want to meditate, if you really want to find that space within yourself, you have to have a disciplined practice. You have to work at it. Closing your eyes and breathing isn't enough. You have to constantly practice letting go of your thoughts and coming back to the present. I finally acknowledged that if I want to be serious about meditation, it's going to involve a significant amount of time and effort.

Second, I realized that I will never be able to put my beliefs into a box. At the root of all my explorations is the fact that I am a questioner. I am a questioner that yearns for answers. I am a searcher looks for a way to name my experiences, my spirituality. I want to name my feelings and my practices and put them into an intellectual or religious framework. For the first time, at Shoshoni, I both realized and started to give into the truth - some things cannot be explained. Why does the temple have both Buddhist and Hindu deities? What religion does yoga come from? What do I call this feeling? "Katie, stop trying to explain things and just live in the experience". There are deities from many religions in one space because they each bring something meaningful to the experience. Yoga comes from inside of you. This feeling? Well, it feels right and I can go along with that without defining it. I can't put my beliefs into a box because my spiritual identity is not definable - it is defined moment by moment and I have never been able to predict what the next moment will entail. 

Third, I kicked up into a handstand. Years trapped in the comfortable experience of looking at the world right-side-up. Years of practicing yoga and even training as an instructor and I remained terrified of pushing myself that tiny bit extra to defy the gravity that held me down. A new sense of self-confidence, a faith in the present, and letting go of the past and the future, I finally found stability within the fear and discomfort of being up-side-down. Taking the risk, pushing fear aside, and just going for it. The last 4 months have made up the most rewarding handstand of my life. The world is up-side-down, that is the right side up and I wouldn't have it any other way.

kspencer not in Africa

In the past whenever I have had the freedom to choose where to go I have almost always found a way to choose Africa (hence the title of my blog). When December 5th arrived and I had 8 months of freedom ahead of me with the world as my limit, Africa was, for the first time in my life, not on my immediate agenda. After a month of visiting and spending time with family and friends who I hadn't seen in awhile Halle met me in Minnesota for the long, snowy drive out to Colorado. My next step was a condensed version of the ski bum year I had always wanted. Beaver Creek, Vail, Alta, and back country skiing in British Columbia - my first next step was, without a doubt, the perfect one. I didn't and don't always have to go to far off places to travel somewhere new inside myself. 

On January 6, 2009 I wrote:

I wake up with daylight, close my eyes, and try to find that quiet place inside myself. I read a poem from "The House of Belonging" and cook in good company. I spend time washing my face - appreciating the softness and accepting my reflection. I sit, I read, and admittedly I type, but only for good conversation. I snowshoe up to ski, sip coffee, and snowshoe home. I cook again, light a fire, read, and practice headstands. When my eyes feel heavy I go to bed - one hand on my heart and the other on my naval. In my head I say "release" and I let go. Tomorrow is a new beginning and that is all that matters. 

Start Close In

After that autumn morning and some honest conversations with friends and family, I knew that leaving my job was the first step. I wasn't sure what would come after that, but I trusted that the next step would come to me after I took the first one. David Whyte's poem guided me through the difficult week or so leading up to my resignation.

Start Close In

Start close in,
don't take the second step
or the third,
start with the first
close in,
the step
you don't want to take.

Start with
the ground 
you know,
the pale ground
beneath your feet,
your own
way of starting 
the conversation.

Start with your own 
give up on other
people's questions, 
don't let them
smother something

To find
another's voice, 
your own voice,
wait until
that voice
becomes a
private ear
to another.

Start right now
take a small step
you can call your own
don't follow
someone else's 
heroics, be humble
and focused,
start close in,
don't mistake
that other
for your own.

Start close in, 
don't take
the second step
or the third,
start with the first
close in,
the step
you don't want to take.

It was an interesting process for me. I didn't feel like I had a say in the matter anymore. I knew the only way forward was to walk into the office and put in my notice. Part of me (the ego part of me) left my body and I it felt like someone/thing was completely in control of my movement. December 5th was going to be my last day and I was going to take a good amount of vacation time leading up to it to focus on my grad school applications. I left the office that day and haven't had a single moment of regret since. 

The moment I knew I had to make a change

It was a warm autumn day in Washington D.C. and I was sitting outside at my favorite little coffee shop around the corner, Java House. I love sitting in there on that picturesque street and watching the world quietly go by. On this one day I let my mind wander away from the GRE workbook in front of me to thoughts that have frequently tugged at my mind. For whatever reason, this time when the thoughts entered my mind I wrote them down on a crumpled sheet of paper and carried the words around with me. For whatever reason, that is when I knew that, for me, there was no longer a choice. I had to act.

This is what I wrote - D.C., October 2008:

Eventually you have to throw your expectations to the wind. Holding onto what I thought should be holds me still and unsatisfied. What I thought, is not what is. Fear of movement that might disrupt what seems like the ideal position to wait in for those expectations to manifest - is what keeps me still. 

If I could genuinely release those expectations would I not be afraid? Maybe I would be afraid, but at least I would be able to move more freely through my life.

I don't want to be a wanderer or someone who is constantly trying to escape. But I also don't want to be someone who sits and waits for old expectations to come true.