The sunshine state: a week long sojourn along the coast and among the swamps of South Florida

Days 1-2: Fort Lauderdale

We touch down on the runway at Fort Lauderdale at the crack of dawn on Christmas Day, and spend upwards of half an hour waiting for the rental car guy to pick us up and take us to the offsite facility. One of the joys of traveling anywhere on Christmas, the only day in America when everything is well and truly closed, even McDonalds.

We emerge from the rental facility with the small silver car that will be our mobile home for the next seven days, and arrive at Lauderdale by the Sea – a series of vacation condos minutes from the seashore – with the whole day ahead of us, though it’s too early to check-in to our rooms. Hastily changing into our shorts in the bathroom of a Walgreens, we step into the sunshine and onto the beach, cool grains of sand slipping through our toes. Impressive beachfront condos line the shores, and a long boardwalk extends into the ocean. The water is cool, but not chilly, and with the sun beaming it’s nothing short of heavenly – okay, at 85 degrees, it’s a little warm. But having fled from 30 degree weather in NYC only to be met with the same in California, I’ll take this heat any day. It’s a public beach, but located so far from downtown Fort Lauderdale, it practically feels like we have the whole beach to ourselves.

Around eleven, the tourists start pouring in, and we break for lunch. Luckily, the restaurants in this area are geared for tourist season, and are mercifully open to feed hungry beachgoers, even on Christmas. After a few mimosas, we check-in to our room, freshen up, and decide to check out the more touristy parts of Fort Lauderdale with a trip to Las Olas Beach (“The Waves” in Spanish). Oh boy. We’ve definitely left the geriatric, retiree community behind. Here, youngins’ flock to cheesy beachside saloons and Hooters.

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After a day of beach fun, we decide to check out the Fort Lauderdale Riverwalk. Along the way, we spot Millionaire’s Row, a bed of grand homes along the waterfront. It was a haven for the well-heeled and wealthy back in the ‘70s, when becoming a millionaire was actually a notable accomplishment.

But it’s after getting lost while driving that we become aware of some of the massive wealth inequality in this Florida beach town. Just blocks away from the glitzy riverfront and million-dollar condos are hospitals and housing for very low-income communities and homeless individuals wandering the streets. While the weather here may be warm year-round, there doesn’t seem to be much in the way for economic or municipal support for those in need.

We descend upon the river for a pleasant evening boat ride – although it turns out to be far from that. Our boat operator, let’s just say, is neither of a fan of our California origins and an ardent Trump supporter. He proceeds to rail against Governor Jerry Brown and champion the soon-to-be-president. The man’s smug tone is enough to drive Mom and Dad into a tizzy, and before I know, we’ve launched in a full-on debate. Now, I may have my political inclinations, but I don’t think it’s a smart idea to get into a heated discussion with the guy manning your boat! Oh well…we survived.

The following day, we wake up bright and early to catch the sun peeking up over the blue horizon while we wait on the beach, wind gently whipping through our hair. It’s a lovely sight. Walking along the beach, we hunt for seashells in the frothy waves and tiptoe around colorful jellyfish that have washed ashore. Then, we head off to more glamorous shores. Our destination: Palm Beach. Trump territory. We decide to avoid Mar-a-Lago. But Palm Beach is pleasantly absent of any orange looking politicians. The waves ambush you from the left and right all at once. Mom and I take turns giggling as the waves rush in and out over our calves.

Day 3: Miami

Little did I know that I would be returning to Miami for the second time in a year. Don’t get me wrong, I love the great weather, impeccably clean beaches and friendly vibes, but it’s not the kind of city I want to go back to frequently. South Beach is still, well, South Beach. Hordes of inebriated twenty-somethings and spring breakers descend upon the main thoroughfare along the beach, giant margarita cups the size of my head in hand. Unsurprisingly, it only took a matter of minutes before my dear parents grumbled about the madness of young hooligans. Going to Miami with one’s parents is like venturing to Las Vegas before you’ve turned twenty-one – which, I have also done, funnily enough. It’s not something I would recommend. We managed to make a fun time of it though and reveled temporarily in the South Beach madness.

While walking along the beach, I saw a scruffy-looking, shirtless older man leading a group of avid runners down a long stretch of the beach. A friend of mine recently published a book called Running with Raven about a man named Raven who has run eight miles every day in Miami for the past few decades, amassing hundreds of followers or “Raven Runners” along the way. I thought: “Could it be him?” And as they passed by, I heard the words “Raven Runners.” It was! It was one of those moments that made me realize what a small world we live in. Anyway, I encourage all running, beach, Miami, and human interest story enthusiasts to check out Running with Raven. It’s a terrific summer read.

We cap off the night with some traditional Cuban fare and head to the hotel.

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Days 4-5: The Keys

For the third day in a row, we wake up early enough to see the sunrise. How on earth am I managing to do this while fueled by the three-hour time difference between California and Florida? I should still be in bed. Oh well. The ethereal pink, blue and yellow rays over the horizon make up for it. Central Beach is a little calmer than South Beach, to say the least, and less of a tourist trap, though no less charming. The cleanup crew and a few other odd beachgoers are the only ones with us to greet the rising sun.

After that, we spend a lazy few hours in the hotel room before checkout, stopping by a shopping mall en route to the Keys – a set of islands connected only by U.S Route 1 off the coast of Florida – for lunch. And funnily enough, as I discover while perusing in the roadside tourist shops, the Keys were once the site of a dramatically unsuccessful secession effort. They have their own flag and everything. I imagine the ongoing ballot effort for California to secede will be similarly fruitless – if it ever takes off the ground – but hey, in this political climate, who knows what will happen?

But unbeknownst to us, all the tourists in South Florida are heading down to the Keys today for the New Year’s Eve festivities. There are also two cruises taking off from Key West the following day, and what’s normally a three hour drive winds up taking six hours. Not good.

Stress levels are rising in the car and we stop by for some therapeutic treats at Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen in Key Largo, which reportedly has the world’s best key lime pie, according to Travel & Leisure. It doesn’t disappoint. Tangy and sweet all at once, coated with a crumbly but firm graham cracker crust, it’s definitely a dessert designed by the gods. But what might be even better than the pie is the lively décor of the place; license plates donated by guests from all over the country and the world coat the walls, and foreign currency from Venezuela to India dots the ceiling.

We make another pit stop in Key Largo at the John Pennekamp State Park for a glass-bottom tour. Dozens of different kinds of colorful fish and coral pass beneath our feet. The Keys, as it turns out, is one of the few places in the world where you can view coral beds like this. One of the others is the Great Barrier Reef, which sadly, is not faring too well.

Before we departed on our boat ride, our tour guide had only rule: don’t drop anything. Of course, I promptly break this rule. Leaning over the guardrail to catch a better view of a school of blue fish, I watch as my sunglasses drop to the glass with a dramatic clink, and I swear, everyone turns and looks straight at me. The tour guide guffaws over the microphone: “Those are a goner!” Good thing I bought them on discount.

In between the harried drive through the Keys – thanks Dad for being the designated driver throughout this trip! – we find some time to appreciate the sun setting over the famous Seven Mile Bridge, with deep royal blue seas flanking us on both sides. Simply majestic.

By the time we finally arrive in Key West and deal with the ridiculous parking situation and drunk tourists on the island, we’re all fed-up and cranky, and a few tears are shed. But we make up in time to head to Sloppy Joe’s, a bar that the famous writer Ernest Hemingway famously frequently during his many years on the island. Being a literary geek, I couldn’t pass this up. Apparently, Key West also has a “Papa” contest – “Papa” being Hemingway’s nickname – where people vie for the title of best Hemingway look-a-like, beard and all? Oh my. Alas, I don’t have a chance to sample a Hemingway dacquiri, as the rowdy crowds at Sloppy Joe’s are a little too much for my parents – and frankly, for me too.

So we depart on a walking tour down Duval Street, the main thoroughfare in Key West. One of our first sightings is the giant red high heel monument hanging from the top of the Bourbon Street Pub, and in which celebrity drag queen Sushi sits every New Years as the shoe slowly lowers at midnight (Key West’s version of the NYC ball drop). Helpful signs along the street indicate historic sites of rum-runner gangs during the Prohibition era, and places that were rebuilt after a devastating fire in the late 1800s.

At the end of the street is a large statue of a water marker with the words ‘Southernmost Point of USA, Cuba – 90 Miles.’ Next to that is another statue of a man who supposedly peddled his wares at this exact spot and greeted approximately 11 million visitors to the southern shores of Florida over the years, reportedly by blowing into a conch shell. Something tells me this is an urban legend, but it warms my heart. If only immigrants received such a hearty welcome today.

It’s a welcome respite when my head hits the pillow. Sleep comes quickly after a long, long day.

The next morning, I continue to bask in the literary nerdiness of Key West with a guided tour at the Ernest Hemingway House and Museum. A curious white cat perched atop the gate greets us. It’s one of 53 cats presently residing at the Hemingway House; the museum employs a full-time veterinarian to care for them. These cats are the descendants of one original six-toed matriarch, spawning generations of furballs with extraneous digits.

But while the cats may be fun to pet, the real fun comes from hearing tales of Hemingway’s eccentric genius in the home where he created 70% of his novels, including famous works like The Old Man and the Sea. That covers the genius part. As for the eccentricity…well. Throughout his life, Ernest Hemingway suffered from nine concussions – one which he incurred by accidentally pulling on a chandelier rather than a toilet chain – three divorces, four wives, numerous affairs rampant alcoholism and depression, electroshock therapy that left him bereft of his memories, and finally, a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. It’s the sobering story behind the creative madness that Hemingway espoused.

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Days 6-7: The Everglades

Alligators. So. Many. Alligators.

It’s a short drive from Homestead to the Eastern side of the Everglades National Park, where we’ll be spending the entire day. Upon entering the park, tourists typically head to the Ernest Coe Visitor Center – the park’s main entrance of it six visitor centers. A National Park nerd, this part of the trip is mainly for my benefit, but Mom and Dad cheerfully trudge along.

We start off the day with a 10:30 a.m. guided tour at the Anhinga Trail, named for the spectacular black-bodied bird that shows off by extending its wings for passerby. But first, an educational presentation by a feisty, middle-aged park ranger with a blonde ponytail. Gesturing towards a mostly bored-looking group of teenagers, couples and families with small toddlers, the park ranger illuminates the difference between crocodiles and alligators by holding up some scary-looking skulls with sharp teeth.

After that, we walk over a ½ mile loop of raised boardwalk over swampy marshes and lily pads, stopping to gawk whenever we catch an alligator peeking its head out of the water, or sunbathing on a patch of grass. On our way out of the park, we spot two alligators gamboling in the water, playing a watery game. Mom has a field day with that, and leaves with a beaming smile on her face.

Following a long drive down the coast, we end up at the Flamingo Visitor Center, where the temperature has suddenly plummeted and the wind sharply escalated, and we start shivering in our think jacket. We can only snag two tickets for the sunset boat cruise, so Mom and I sheepishly embark on the tour. Sorry, Dad!

While we don’t spot any playful dolphins, the view of the sun descending over the watery ocean horizon in vibrant hues of red, orange and purple truly takes your breath away. I couldn’t imagine someone I’d rather share this moment with than with my lovely Mom – and the dozens of other Asian tourists onboard. Oh, and how could I forget the giddy manatees – gentle gray giants that are often referred to as sea cows – palling around near the boat docks of the visitor center. While we only glimpse their backs heaving in and out of the waters, it’s evident they’re having a blast.

The second day: We hop into the multi-car tram and are greeted by a delightful elderly couple and tour guide duo, with the husband driving the tram and the wife narrating. Within minutes, I know it’s going to be a good ride when they refer to themselves as the “Bad Couple” with a reputation for leading tours that run notoriously over time. Their upbeat narration spans the history of Pangea to the evolution of the Everglades over time.

The park is a bird-lovers paradise. Pale ospreys, beautiful egrets, white ibis, great blue herons, black anhingas and pink spoonbills are just some of the birds that we encounter in the Everglades. Avian lovers, beware.

But of course, the real star of the show: the alligators. Apparently, late December, the start of the dry season, is the sweet spot to catch prime views of alligators. Although we saw a respectable four or five alligators yesterday, that’s nothing compared to what we witness today. Dozens – yes, dozens of alligators amble in the waters on the edges of the thin concrete road, mere feet from the tram. As bikers drive by, the female tour guide jollily refers to them as “Meals on Wheels.” Oh boy.

And yet, it seems that the Everglades have somehow managed to avoid any human fatalities due to alligators, which I find to be a small miracle in itself, given the number of foolish people that have perished by wandering into the hot springs of Yellowstone. Still, better put that selfie stick away and keep a respectable five foot distance between yourself and the alligator. Although they’re pretty unfazed by the humans passing by since they view us tall beasts as a threat, if you crouch down to their level, all bets are off.

After that, we decide on a spur of the moment to stop by the Micosukee Village, an Indian reservation located within the Everglades. They’re hosting an arts and crafts festival and we watch a dance performed by Micosukee youths. I’m a little wary of the alligator wrestling area – it seems almost like the animals have been injured and sedated for viewer entertainment, and I can’t get on board with that.

It’s a sobering history lesson when we come to Micosukee. I enjoyed the performance of traditional Micosukee dances and explanation of the tribe’s history in the small museum, and I’m glad that the festival provides a likely much-needed source of income to many native communities in the Everglades. Still, I’m a little conflicted: all the commercialization of culture in the form of free Micosukee T-shirts and peddling of wares seems a little exploitative. I only hope that people come away from these festivals with a more nuanced understanding and appreciation for the culture of indigenous peoples, instead of viewing them as bizarre customs of the “Other.”

Our last stop is the Oasis Valley Visitor Center, where we ask a woman about this rad-looking, old-school camera that appeared in one of the visitor center brochures. “Oh, that’s Clyde Butcher,” she says. “Drive down the road not ½ mile, and you’ll see his place. He’s the only one in this area that uses that kind of camera.” Following our instructions, we make our way to Clyde’s photo shop, only to find that it’s perched on a gorgeous cypress swamp. After a few selfies with the old camera, we bid adieu to the Everglades and to the warm, swampy gaze of the sunshine state.

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Smiley (An Audio Story in NYC)

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Last semester, I started getting getting more interested in audio stories — podcasts, radio, you name it.

For our first audio assignment, we had to go around and interview strangers on the streets of New York about their summer (yes, I know it’s hard to contemplate blissfully sunny days in the midst of this winter chill, but bear with me). As you can imagine, drawing a coherent story out of a complete stranger was not an easy task. It was the usual midst of angst, rejection, and bizarrely inappropriate encounters.

But then, I met a wonderful stranger on a park bench named Smiley. He told me about his love affair over the summer with Chelsea Piers. Here’s Smiley’s story:

https://soundcloud.com/podforum/yarlagadda-tara-smiley

A New Era, a New Resistance: Reflections on the Inauguration & the Women’s March on Washington, From Me to You

Gloom and doom. For many Washingtonians, this was the unpleasant sentiment that had descended on their capital, much like the clouds that had begun to settle above the city. I had arrived the day before the inauguration of President Trump, hoping to catch up with a few friends before the Women’s March on Washington. But I wasn’t prepared for how the city had changed since I left it last May — what seems like an eternity ago. At that time, it seemed all but assured that we would soon have the first female president of the United States sitting in the Oval Office. How very quickly the tables turn.

Many old friends and colleagues had already hightailed it out of DC, hoping to escape the wave of Trump fanfare that had besieged the city. For those that remained, I asked friends how they planned to spend the inauguration, given that most of them were decidedly not fans of the new administration. Most planned to hunker down as if a tornado was descending on the capital, turning their cozy pads into bunkers that they’d use to ride out the inauguration with the comfort of food and booze. If much of liberal America was in mourning, nowhere was this more evident than in DC.

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Attendees of the inauguration gathered on the South Lawn of the White House.

I thought I would spend part of the day wishing Obama a farewell in front of the White House on his last full day in office. I wasn’t exactly President Obama’s biggest fan when it came to some policies like mass deportation and going after journalists under the Espionage Act, and thought that he could have done a better job of rallying Congress to get its act together, but I do think that ultimately, he did some great things that benefited some of the most vulnerable people in our country, and did it with dignity and aplomb — a measure of reserve that is unlikely in the next four years given Trump’s tendency for bombastic comments. For that, Obama deserves a strong measure of gratitude.

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A display posted inside the window of store in the Cleveland Park neighborhood of Washington, DC.

And yet, I didn’t get that opportunity. ‘Make America Great Again’ had hit the capital in anticipation of the inauguration with a sea of crimson MAGA hats, ‘Welcome President Trump’ signs, and misogynistic anti-Hillary buttons peddled by street vendors. Obama’s presence had already been vanquished from the capital. Most inaugural attendees were respectful (apart from a few misplaced yells of ‘Good riddance Obama’), but it was still a still strange spectacle to behold in a city that I once though I knew very well. Wealthy and elite Republicans — the kind who find MAGA hats tacky but attending inaugural balls glorious — muttered ‘rednecks’ at the newcomers who came to Washington on motorbikes and in jeans to welcome their new president.

And then, now former-President Obama was whisked away to St. Andrews Air Force base, and President Trump was sworn in. Much has already been said about the inauguration, from Trump’s post-apocalyptic speech to the minimal number of attendees compared to the throngs that attended both of Obama’s inaugurations — a number which Trump later decried as spin doctoring on the part of the media — to the administration’s wiping of civil rights pages on whitehouse.gov to the anarchists that shattered windows to former President George W. Bush’s inability to handle a poncho.

All in all though, by Trump standards, the number of bellicose comments made were kept to an expected dozen or so, and his first day got underway with as little hubbub as could be expected for such an unorthodox and polarizing president. I watched Trump being sworn in on Spanish television while eating pupusas at a restaurant where Salvadorian music was blaring over loudspeakers and hardly anyone spoke English. It was a glorious contradiction of everything Donald Trump has claimed to stand for, and the dramatic irony was almost too strong for me to handle.

It wasn’t all bad, those first few days. I caught up with friends and sought comfort in Georgetown cupcakes, a talk with fabulous females authors at the beloved Politics & Prose bookstore and a solidarity beer at Comet Ping Pong (the place which sadly became a site of unwarranted infamy when a man followed a trail of fake news to the restaurant, armed with a gun). These were just a few of my old haunts when I lived in DC and nostalgia was a wonderful coping mechanism as we entered the new, uncertain era.

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But then, it happened. 1.21.17: the Women’s March on Washington. Overnight, the city had transformed from crimson red caps to vivid pink hats in the shape of cats. It was a brilliant symbolic effort to take back a term that the-then presidential nominee Trump had made vulgar — to say the least — through a now-infamous Hollywood Access video.

The phrase ‘pussy grabs back’ was boldly playing out not only through these iconic knit hats, but also in the signs that plastered the streets of DC. The signs ran the gamut of emotions, from virulent rage to punderful slogans to empowering feminist iconography. The signs also reflected the diversity of issues and interests of women all over the country: climate change, immigrants’ rights, criminal justice reform, you name it. Intersectionality was in full speed at the march, and it was a welcome sight to behold.

My sign of choice? “Journalists rights are human rights.” I’ll confess that I just found it in a set of pre-made signs that some of my Amnesty International friends had made, but I knew the sign was meant for me. Photojournalists shouted in solidarity as I passed by them during the march, and I never felt more at home in defending the need for freedom of the press. Some might say that a journalist should not participate in a march of this scale. I couldn’t disagree more. Journalism is under attack, even though it is needed more than ever, and female journalists particularly so under this new era. We need look no further than what happened to Megyn Kelly to offer proof of that danger. It’s great to have activists on board in solidarity, but if members of the press — especially female journalists — don’t stand up for our rights, no one will.

I had gathered with friends at the start of the march not far from the National Mall — along with the 500,000 some estimated other women and men from across the country that had gathered in the nation’s capital. We waited with bated breath for the speeches to commence, but we didn’t have to wait long. America Ferrera. Gloria Steinem. Janelle Monae. The mothers of Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, and other young black men lost too soon to police brutality. California Senator Kamala Harris. Representative Maxine Waters. Angela Davis. Michael Moore. Scarlet Johannson. And the march’s main co-organizers Linda Sarsour, Tameka Mallory, and Carmen Perez — along with countless other activists, organizers and celebrities who helped make the march possible — were some of the fierce ladies who spoke at this historic gathering. They agitated, they united, they inspired us. All of us.

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My favorite speaker though might have been young Sophie Cruz, who was wise beyond her years when she boldly got up on stage with her family to encourage — in both English and Spanish — children to stay strong in these frightening and uncertain times for immigrants: “Fight with love, faith and courage so our families won’t be destroyed…I am here to tell the children, please do not be afraid. We are not alone.”

Was the rally perfect? No, there were some pretty big logistical issues, the primary one being that since there was no designated lane for emergency vehicles, we had to part like Moses and the Red Sea every single time an ambulance or police car passed through the crowd, pressing up against each other like sardines. But then again, the march’s undoing was in its own success. The main organizers had been hoping for 250,000 attendees, and got more than twice as many participants as expected. That’s a very, very good problem to have.

But eventually, after three hours of robust speeches and performances and exhausted cries of ‘Start the March! Start the March,’ we did just that. We took off in all directions, and I got separated from my friends at some point along the way, but we women converged on downtown DC like no other force in recent history, chanting down Constitution Avenue, gathering in unity circles on the National Mall, and finally, culminating in peaceful protests outside of the White House. The message to Donald Trump was loud, clear and beautiful. And despite the enormous number of participants, not a single person was arrested. That’s an incredible testament to the power of peaceful protest, and the wonderful cooperation of DC law enforcement. I was never more proud of DC than I was that day.

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And it wasn’t just DC. 250,000 showed up in Chicago, between 500,000-750,000 in Los Angeles, and countless thousands more in sister cities across the nation. In total, an estimated 1 in 100 Americans showed up to march across the U.S., and hundreds of thousands more across the globe in Paris, London, Mexico City, Delhi, and more. And with a small contingent in Antarctica, the women’s march came to every single continent on the world. Now that is empowering.

But, in Donald Trump’s belittling of the march the very next day (though perhaps recognizing his mistake, he quickly turned around and expressed his support for the right to peacefully protest…though how genuine that subsequent tweet was, I cannot say), I was reminded of the very important work that needs to be done to turn the goodwill and camaraderie of the march into concrete action.

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For some, that next step is running for elected office as a local school board or city council member. For me, it’s rolling up my sleeves as a reporter and tackling hard-hitting issues to inform the public at a time when the administration openly lampoons and derides the media. Journalists will need to be more ethical, more representative, more accurate, and more bold than ever before. It’s certainly not going to be easy for any of us, especially in this climate, but there’s no time like the present to get to work.

In sum: we are loud, we are nasty and we will not go quietly into the night.

 

 

 

 

And Here We Are Now: Looking Back on the Media’s Coverage of the 2016 Election with Michael Calderone

Editor’s note: With less than ten days to go until the inauguration of President Donald Trump, I thought that I would share an interview that I did with Michael Calderone, Senior Media Reporter for The Huffington Post, looking back on the media’s – oftentimes deeply conflicted – role in the 2016 election. You can read some of Calderone’s articles here, or find him on Twitter @mlcalderone

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The Smith restaurant, where I met with Michael Calderone, Senior Media Reporter for The Huffington Post. Photo courtesy of thesmithrestaurant.com

I’m huffing and puffing as I rush over to The Smith, a restaurant in the East Village. I’ve just committed one of the rookie mistakes of a journalist, which is arriving five minutes late to a pre-scheduled meeting – a meeting in which you only have an hour to spare because the interviewee has to jet to another rendezvous. I attempt to fix my tousled hair, hoping I don’t look like a train wreck, before spotting Michael Calderone casually waving at me through the glass doors opening into the restaurant.

Calderone is the Senior Media Reporter for The Huffington Post, and before that, he worked at the New York Observer, Politico, and Yahoo News. “Media reporting” is a broad term that covers everything from the robber barons of media like Jeff Bezos to the press’ coverage of trending topics, namely, politics. He’s also been honored with the National Press Club’s Arthur Rowse Award for Press Criticism for writing about the media’s treatment of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

We had met a few weeks beforehand at a conference hosted by the New York Press Club, where he participated in a panel on the media’s coverage of the 2016 election. He was just a friendly reporter and NYU adjunct professor and I, a confused NYU graduate student eager to make contacts in the media world. Then, the election – otherwise known as the Apocalypse of 2016 – happened, and the media world threw itself into a frenzy. And here we are now.

Like many other journalists, I was reeling after the election, and in need of answers. How did the media get it so completely, arrogantly, wrong? New York Times column “The Upshot” reported at 10:20 p.m. on election night that Hillary Clinton had an 85% chance of winning. The Huffington Post practically laughed in Nate Silver’s face, even though his calculations were rather conservative, predicting that Trump had a 35% chance of winning. For all of its incessant, 24-7 election coverage, the media had failed to anticipate the very real possibility of Donald Trump becoming president, had failed to cover him with this in mind, and had failed to take him seriously. I was hoping Calderone might have some thoughts on what went wrong and the future of journalism after this divisive election.

Calderone sports a relaxed look, a boyish grin, and a pair of dark, round librarian style glasses. He’s cheerful, despite my tardiness. He dons a grey sports jacket and a button-down shirt with no tie – a traditional look for many male journalists in the city.

For all his coverage of the intersection of media and politics, Calderone started off on a different beat: real estate. He was an intern at the New York Observer – before it came under the ownership of Donald Trump’s famous son-in-law, Jared Kushner. At the time, the Observer was known for its in-depth forthright coverage of politics, real estate and New York society at-large. Calderone describes it as: “Really covering the power elites of Manhattan in a weekly chronicle. The late Peter Kaplan, who used to be an editor there, used to describe it [as] almost a nineteenth century novel, where you’re covering these powerful figures.”

There aren’t many media reporters now, and there were even fewer in the mid-2000s when Calderone began writing about the industry for New York Observer’s storied “Off the Record” column. Calderone was the first media reporter at Politico, Yahoo News and The Huffington Post. He says as we receive our meals: “One of the upsides of being the first media reporter was that you can’t really screw it up.”

We dive right into the election madness with Calderone’s forays at the Observer. Despite president-elect Trump’s deep chagrin towards the press now, at the time, Calderone wryly notes, Trump was more than cozy with the media: “He was – in my view – the most accessible famous person in New York City. He called me back numerous times at the New York Observer – I don’t think he had any idea who I was.” For Calderone, Trump is an “interesting figure” that “simultaneously attacks the media and also craves the adulation and the coverage that comes along with being a media and entertainment star.”

But was it more than ego – was it also creative genius? Did Donald Trump manipulate the media through his self-adulation, thereby scoring himself some sweet coverage during the election? Calderone characterizes it as more of a “symbiotic relationship” between Trump and the media, but says that Trump took advantage of the media’s desire for titillating stories, calling in to stations three or four times a day from Trump Tower.

In turn, the media would generate a dozen roundtable discussions about the latest outlandish thing that he’d said. Calderone puts it bluntly: “…[Trump] recognized early on that he could dominate the media conversation from his apartment.”

The news media used to be reluctant to allow presidential candidates to conduct interviews from their home – until Donald Trump came along. Calderone is careful to note that these same news outlets also extended the courtesy to Hillary Clinton, but she was never interested in having such a direct line of communication with the media. He continues: “And so he got significantly more attention than anyone on the Republican field, and that helped elevate him throughout the primaries.”

So that’s strike one against the media: its excessive coverage of Donald Trump. Okay, but with a confused look on my face, I ask, don’t we already knew all of this? Isn’t there more to it? Oh, there is. Calderone is more than happy to give me his take between forkfuls of an egg-white omelet.

“If you want to put him on air a lot, that’s fine, but you need to treat him like a presidential candidate.”

Over clashing forks and knives, we talk about how the media for far too long enabled Donald Trump’s dog-and-pony show – all the while treating his candidacy like some big joke. It wasn’t until later, when it became clear that Donald Trump was a frontrunner in the Republican primary, that reporters realized the error of their ways. They started producing more serious coverage, doing exposés in The New York Times about what building a wall along the U.S-Mexico border might entail, and fact-checked him more than possibly any other presidential candidate to-date.

And yet, the media persisted in the idea that there was no way that this man could possibly ascend to the highest office in the land, given his track record of crass, misogynistic, and racist statements that sounded abhorrent to many Americans. A lack of imagination – or childish blindness, perhaps – in part, doomed the press.

But does part of the blindness stem from the much-maligned “liberal” bubbles that the media and Trump supporters have pointed out again and again? It was supposedly from their newsrooms in New York and DC that members of the mainstream media mocked, and thus, fundamentally failed to understand the Rust Belt Trump supporter. Wiping his mouth with a napkin, Calderone shakes his head, firmly concluding that it would be wrong to say that the media didn’t try to cover the Trump voter, given that news outlets sent countless staffers to report on his rallies and supporters.

But he does concede that there is a risk in “sending a reporter out to Appalachia for three days, and them coming back with some report that looks as if they’re a stranger in a strange land, sort of they’re visiting a foreign country, and what are these weird customs? And that could be a problem with not having reporters based in some of these areas, or not having the experience of growing up there …”

Part of the problem, Calderone says as he lowers his fork, stems from the shuttering of local newspapers across the country, leaving large swathes of the country without solid reporters from those areas. Back in the good old days, newbie reporters would write for a local newspaper as a way to work their way up the ladder. But now, journalists come straight out of J-school and go work for The New York Times, thus furthering the divide between mainstream media in the major cities and the rest of the country.

The last, and perhaps most important issue, that Calderone brings up as we scrape off the last bits of egg from our plates is the “normalizing” of Trump’s views “as if they’re acceptable policies” – such as the proposed Muslim ban – in the pursuit of journalistic principles like neutrality and fairness. For Calderone, that was a huge failure in reporting – something that outlets like The Huffington Post repudiated, unlike many legacy news organizations. He says animatedly: “…there’s this idea that…by saying that [it] isn’t an acceptable position, somehow you’re being partisan. My view is – that’s not partisan. We always said that – The Huffington Post always said that. ”

But too often, not enough legacy news organizations did the same, according to Calderone. The reality was that this election was like no other before it. The news media just didn’t grasp how they couldn’t cover Trump’s campaign as politics as usual. And here we are now, with the general public’s trust in the media shattered.

As Trump appoints Steve Bannon, formerly the head of Breitbart News – a haven for the growing alt-right movement – as his chief advisor; ditches the protective press pool that normally accompanies president-elects to grab a steak dinner with his family; and berates journalists in official meetings for doing their jobs, what does the future of press freedom look like? Pretty bleak, according to Calderone. In addition to having questionable actors like Bannon “whispering in the president’s ear” there are significant First Amendment concerns for journalists:

“…what’s being taken for granted by journalists is not law – it’s precedent. It requires a White House that is committed to First Amendment principles to believe that the press has a reason to be in the White House…and if Donald Trump has shown throughout the campaign, he hasn’t respected that role at all.”

His parting words do nothing to soothe my fretful mind: “I think journalists have a lot to fear over the next four years.”

As we get the bill and reach for our credit cards, I realize that there’s something that bothers me. For all his scorn for the media coverage writ-large, Calderone tiptoes around any direct criticism of The Huffington Post. I want to push back on this – weren’t they also guilty of many of the media’s failings?

After all, The Huffington Post announced in 2015 that it would no longer display articles covering Donald Trump in the political section, but rather, in its entertainment coverage. Their reasoning? “Trump’s campaign is a sideshow. We won’t take the bait. If you are interested in what The Donald has to say, you’ll find it next to our stories on the Kardashians and The Bachelorette.”

Ouch. I wonder if the editors at The Huffington Post are regretting that statement now.

But alas, Calderone has to head to another meeting at The Huffington Post’s office. Drat. Saved by the bell.

Looking back on the conversation afterwards, I wonder if The Huffington Post will modify its editor’s note at the bottom of its Trump articles, given that Trump is no longer a buffoonish nominee that could be dismissed, but the person who would soon be in charge of running the most powerful country in the world?

For context: early in 2016, The Huffington Post began adding a not-so-subtle anti-Trump disclaimer at the bottom of all of its coverage of the then Republican nominee. It was a bold move by The Huffington Post, one that surely did not improve its blacklisted status in the eyes of Trump and his supporters. The postscript read:

Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liarrampant xenophoberacistmisogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.

As I was writing this article, I looked up Calderone’s latest piece on Trump. Sure enough: the editor’s note had completely vanished. And here we are now.

“Hillbilly Elegy:” A Book Review. Does J.D. Vance succeed in explaining the Rust Belt to the rest of America?

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Photo credit: Goodreads.com

Rating: 3/5 stars

Like many folks in the past few weeks, I stumbled upon J.D. Vance’s nonfiction book and memoir Hillbilly Elegy on a list of ‘best books to understand the 2016 election’ written likely by The New York Times or another similarly eminent publication. In reading it, I hoped to glean an unfiltered, insightful perspective of someone who is from and still holds a deep emotional attachment to his home in Appalachia.

By that metric, the book succeeded — with a few disappointing caveats. Vance gives a honest personal account of everything from witnessing his mother’s drug abuse to the screaming fights of his neighbors to the enduring love of his Mamaw (grandma) that gave him a pathway to great success as a Yale Law student. (Mamaw is awesome and by far the best character in the book, by the way. I would have read this book just to hear her swear like a sailor; gruffly, yet lovingly push Vance to become educated and achieve something more than a hillbilly life; and threaten those who dared hurt her family.)  The book offers both a deeply unflattering and at times, heartwarming look at the people that he calls his friends and family as an insight more broadly into the culture of white working-class Appalachia.

The writing isn’t earth-shattering by any means, but then again, I didn’t open it up expecting literary flash, but rather, interesting substance. As a minor critique: the book can get a little repetitive at times in its storytelling. But I think I was more disappointed in the content, in part because I was hoping for something more than memoir. Had the book combined his powerful story with compelling academic analysis, it might have been more well-rounded and meaningful than a simple narrative account.

The book wasn’t written with the intent to explain the ‘working class Trump voter’ to the liberal masses — even though it’s since been interpreted by much of the mainstream media to be just that — but Vance did seek to shed light on the culture of Appalachia, of how people who live in the Rust Belt behave and why, even if their behavior seems to run counter to their best interests. I would say he succeeded somewhat in making us more aware of and empathetic towards working class Appalachia. However, the end result is often a one-note picture of people who often act in horrible ways to those around them, entrapped by the harshness of their circumstances and being unwilling to rise above them. Still, it’s hard to dismiss, because it is Vance’s own lived narrative.

True, Vance does offer some answers to questions like ‘how do we help ameliorate the situation in Appalachia?’ with some no-nonsense talk against condescending paternalism — which white-collar America is all-too prone to offer up in discussions of blue collar workers — and failed, if well-intentioned, government policies to help the poor. And yet, he offers no tangible solutions as alternatives to the government policies that he bitterly derides.

For example: I almost laughed at his chiding of politicians who set forth legislation to curb payday lending — predatory loans offered at exorbitantly high-interest rates to primarily low-income folks that often leaves them trapped in spiraling debt. He justifies his support of a horrible practice like this by citing how payday loans helped him get over a short-term economic windfall without any long-term debt. This is a case where anecdotal evidence slips dangerously into a generalization that I would strongly wager is not true for many working class individuals — something which Vance tends to do throughout the book.

The biggest critique though: At the end of the book, you’re often left with the feeling of despair; this is just the way it is in this part of the country, and absent the love and support of key familial figures that Vance was lucky to have in his life, most young working class people in Appalachia have little chance of making it out of there. And that’s a tough, maybe overly simplistic pill to swallow for most readers — especially for a policy wonk like me fresh out of Washington, DC — even though it’s the primary takeaway from the book.

A Barnes & Noble closes down this holiday season and shatters Bronx residents’ hearts

Seasonal holiday wares are in full display at the Baychester Barnes & Noble in the Bronx. Red and white tins of spiced black tea, peppermint bark, and mugs bearing the grinning faces of Snoopy and the Grinch adorn the entrance to the bookstore’s café. Kids fresh out of school for the day chase their siblings around the carpeted children’s section and beg their parents for new books.

And yet, the Baychester Barnes & Noble is slated to close its doors at the end of this year. It is currently the only bookstore located in Bronx – a borough of nearly 1.5 million people in New York City. According to Metro US, the last independent bookstore in Bronx, Books in the Hood, shut its doors in 2011. The next closest Barnes & Noble is in Yonkers, north of New York City.

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The Baychester Barnes and Noble in the Bronx. Photo credit: Barnesandnoble.com

The shuttering of Barnes & Noble in Bronx is only the latest in a series of closures over the past ten years, though they have become fewer in recent years. According to Fortune.com, Barnes & Noble store numbers dropped from 793 in 2007 to 648 in 2016.

Although Barnes & Noble has pledged to open up a new bookstore in the Bronx sometime in the next two to three years, the community will still be for a time bereft of a key place of learning and tranquility, especially for its youth.

 

It’s an interesting dilemma in New York, where residents usually mourn the closing of independent stores due to gentrification – not a chain retailer like Barnes & Noble. But, I understand the feeling.

 

Growing up in the suburbs of northern California, I loved going to my local Barnes & Noble. I would curl up between two aisles and devour one book after another, reluctantly retreating from my cocoon after three hours to find my mother at the appointed time and depart. A chai frappucino and a set of good books at Barnes & Noble was all I needed.

 

When the Barnes & Noble near my hometown closed down a few years ago, I experienced a keen sense of sorrow, knowing that when I went back home, the site of many good childhood and teenage memories would be gone. I chatted with my mother, begrudging Amazon for decimating bookstores nationwide while I simultaneously bought a Kindle.

 

So I brave the long sojourn from Manhattan to the Bronx, taking the subway and then another bus that drops me off at the side of a lonely highway next to the Bay Plaza shopping center – a strip mall with a Stop & Shop and Bob’s Discount Furniture, among other stores. There isn’t a single mom-and-pop store in sight.

 

And there it is. Flanked by a Kmart and a Forever 21, stands the Barnes & Noble. It appears like any other any Barnes and Noble, with a red brick façade and posters in the window advertising discounts for children’s books like If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. Bestsellers like The Girl on the Train and Ina Garter’s new cookbook are prominently on display.

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A popular children’s book on display at Barnes & Noble. Photo credit: Amazon.com

 

Strolling in, I ask an employee if she has any thoughts on the closing of the store. She remarks with a curt “We’re not allowed to talk about that.” So I ask for her manager.

 

While I wait, I approach a woman and her young son at the front of the store, and start chatting with them. Her name is Heather Arminio, and she’s aghast to hear that the store will be closing its doors. “We’ve been coming for years. I brought [my son] since he was a little kid, we would come to story time on Saturdays, and he would always come to pick out books. I’m a little upset because I don’t like to order books online from Amazon. I like to physically come to the store and look at the books.”

 

While I’m talking to Heather, the store manager, John, a short man in a polished red collar shirt, interrupts me. He’s all smiles, but I know this is no laughing matter. He never says outright that I can’t interview anyone, but the threat is implicit, as a security guard walks back and forth across the storefront. He fumbles at the counter for a bit before handing me the contact information of B&N’s corporate headquarters.

 

We shake hands and part. I walk over to the Starbucks cafe in the corner of the store, still wondering how I nearly got kicked out of the nicest place at in the world – apart from Disney World, of course. I guess there’s a downside to Barnes & Noble’s corporate charm. The chai frappucino is as sugary as always, but it leaves a sour taste in my mouth.

 

After finishing my drink, I head out the store, and set up camp outside the front door. Luckily, I don’t need to wait long. Jane Willis, a twenty-something pre-K teacher, reminisces about the times that she and her friends spent here as teenagers, and thinks with sadness about the children who won’t get to do the same.

 

“Now where are they going to go to enjoy the books, to enjoy that family time with their parents?”

 

Jane sighs. “It puts everybody at a disadvantage. A whole community of people, people like me. Where can we get books? I shouldn’t have to go to a different borough to get books from a bookstore.”

 

If she had to choose between traveling to Manhattan or purchasing books from Amazon, Jane says she would choose Amazon. Score 1 for Amazon. 0 for Barnes & Noble.

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Many have credited the decline of corporate bookstores such as Barnes & Noble with the ease of purchasing books online on Amazon and the rise of e-readers like Kindle. RIP Border’s, another chain bookstore and former B&N rival that bit the dust a few years ago. Photo credit: Amazon.com

 

Shortly afterward, I spot a middle-aged woman carrying a petition and a pen, her eyes resolute, as if set on a mission. Her name is Marie Placide. Marie comes to the bookstore frequently to attend writer’s workshops and do research for her book on Haiti. Her daughter was a valedictorian at Truman High School in Bronx, and the Barnes & Noble was often a place of academic refuge for her, a place where she could walk to after school and study in peace. Marie says dishearteningly:

 

“We don’t have many spaces where parents can come with their kids that are quiet and intellectual spaces.”

 

Except for the Barnes & Noble. The local library may offer some respite, Maries says, but it closes early, and lacks books that students need, such as high-quality SAT prep-books.

 

And so Marie stands with her clipboard outside the bookstore, valiantly attempting to save the Barnes & Noble from imminent foreclosure. While I’m chatting with Marie, a line of people has formed that want to sign the petition. One of them is Jose Garcia, who is here with his daughter, Melanie Garcia, a student at Hunter College. Joe says:

 

“We get coffee here. I don’t even live here. We come here just to have coffee, a hot chocolate, and just to sit down and relax.”

 

For Jose and Melanie, like so many others, this bookstore is a comforting place of nostalgia where they would come to attend midnight openings of Harry Potter. Jose mournfully continues:

 

“The store that’s coming in here – the Bronx can’t relate to that store. We have no need – that’s store’s not going to fill a void. “

 

The store that Jose is referring to is a Saks Off-5th, which is replacing the Barnes & Nobles and has already signed a lease with the landlord. Indeed, in a mall filled with Forever 21s and the like, adding yet another retail clothing store – a place that would certainly lack the sense of community that has flourished over the years at Barnes & Noble – seems like a bitter pill to swallow.

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The logo for Saks Off Fifth, the retail discount store that will be replacing the Barnes & Noble in Bronx.

 

As I walk away, I’m left with a sense of despair this holiday season

But, per recent developments, it seems that all is not in vain. Noelle Santos, a local Bronx resident, is planning to open up her own independent bookstore, The Lit. Bar, early next year. The unique name for the proposed bookstore stems from two things that will flow together in the proposed bookstore: literature and wine.

So while it wouldn’t be the same as the current Barnes and Noble, Bronx residents may have already found another bookstore to love and cherish come Christmastime next year.

 

Forced from Home: A refugee story, as told by Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders)

“There’s an African proverb: ‘When two elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled,” says Luella Smith, a Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders) physician and staff member who serves as our tour guide today at the “Forced from Home: Stories of Displacement Around the Globe” exhibit in Manhattan. The exhibit’s goal: to simulate the refugee crisis and illuminate the struggles that migrants face as they’re caught in a violent crossfire between warring parties – the elephants.

Upon checking in to the exhibit, both my friend, Xin, and I are handed notecards bearing the name of a country and an individual’s status, such as Honduras – refugee, or Syria – IDP (internally displaced person). I am an IDP from South Sudan, the youngest country in the world, but also one that has been mercilessly wracked by a violent internal war since its newfound independence. Xin is a refugee from Honduras. For 45 minutes, we’ll imagine what it must be like – as best as one can while standing on a boardwalk along the Hudson River – to live in these refugees or IDPs’ shoes as if they were our own, migrating in dangerous, unimaginable conditions.

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Luella is a petite Filipino woman from Canada and sports a pink windbreaker and short, gray bob. Throughout the course of our tour, I realize that despite her non-threatening demeanor, Luella is perhaps one of the most badass people I’ve ever met in my life. Luella has been a physician since 1973, and has served in – and sometimes led – at least ten MSF field missions across the world, most recently in Libya.

She also set up a hospital in an old warehouse in Aleppo, Syria, a city which has lately been making headlines as more doctors flee the city due to deadly airstrikes, leaving more wounded and dead Syrian civilians in their wake. “My only lament was that the day I left [Syria], they opened the hospital,” says Luella. She wasn’t directly threatened by ISIS, but heard stories that when ISIS came into certain villages, MSF staff had to disperse.

Before we start the tour, Luella shares a little history about MSF. MSF is an international humanitarian aid relief organization that was founded in 1971 by French doctors to provide medical care to displaced peoples across the globe. They have a high regard for medical ethics, impartiality, independence, bearing witness, accountability and neutrality – their guiding principles, one could say.. MSF operates in 60-70 countries and maintains 35,000 staff around the world. 90% of the staff are locals, and Luella says, that local support is one of the reasons MSF is so good at what it does.

The term “refugee crisis” has been bandied about a lot, but what does that really mean? Luella illuminates this for us in some startling statistics: there are currently 63.5 million displaced people in the world (the same as the population of California and Texas).

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Luella, our tour guide, and my friend, Xin, while touring the exhibit.

Speaking of refugees, Luella says that many of them are “doctors, lawyers and nurses, same as any of us [here in the U.S], but many have been bombed.” And with that sobering note, she ushers us into a large, white, tented dome to start the tour. A video is projected in a panorama around us on the dome walls, and we fall silent as refugees begin speaking in camps in Tanzania and Burundi. Muddy forests and endless rows of tent camps, as far as the eye can see, appear. In one of the final moments of the video, an immigrant sitting with his family chillingly recaps: “[The] journey has been extremely difficult. It fills me with fear.”

As I exit the tent, a drop of water spills over through a crack into tent. It’s eerie – for a second, I feel as if I’m in the damp refugee camps that we saw in the video as rain threatens to spill overhead.

I see tall posters of refugee and IDP encampments from South Sudan, Burundi, Lebanon, Syria, Honduras and other countries. Behind the posters are placards of items that we may need along our migrant journey, ranging from entertainment to basic necessities. I head to the South Sudan poster. Luella tells us that we have fifteen seconds to grab the five earthly possessions we think we’ll need for our upcoming journey, however long or short it may be.

Without thinking, I grab placards bearing a bottle of pills, blankets, water, and a passport. Feeling sentimental, I also grab family photos. I feel rushed, thinking that I made an error. Should I have taken the clothes instead of the photos? What about money? Luella stresses that the exercise is supposed to highlight what our priorities would be if we were refugees – and they oftentimes differ from person to person. Xin’s selections were mostly similar, but she has the foresight to grab a cell phone.

We proceed to our first stop on the physical tour, which is a small, white raft. This fragile boat is meant for 8-10 people, but is often crammed with 80 refugees on the journeys across the Mediterranean. It’s equipped only with a water tank and small paddle. Luella asks: would you cross the ocean in this?

The sea journey could be as short as seven hours – going from Turkey to Greece – or many, many more if you are crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa. As we sit down in the raft, I could hardly imagine any place to store water on this boat, let alone any personal possessions. We’re told that the life jackets refugees receive on these rafts are often fake, so if the boat began to sink, you were out of luck. Starvation, dehydration and suffocation are all real dangers aboard these cramped dinghies. So far, there have been 30,000 deaths aboard boats like these in 2016, though MSF assisted 23,000 people to safety in 2015.

As we leave the dinghy, Luella tells us that we have to give up one of our chosen items. We’ll have to do this at each stage of the “journey.” Sentimentality quickly goes out the window – I give up the family photos. And then we’re on to the second stop, where I reluctantly relinquish the blankets, thinking how easily I get cold.

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At the second stop, we break down the differences between IDPs and refugees. Refugees are fleeing from one country to another. They don’t always have legal status when they enter another country. IDPs have left their homes but are displaced within their own countries, oftentimes under the regime of a government that is persecuting them, like the Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar. So both groups present different challenges. Organizations like the International Organization for Migration exist in theory to help migrants, but the reality is they oftentimes don’t have boots on the ground to make much difference.

And then we’re on our way to the third stop, where discuss basic necessities and hygiene requirements in camps. There’s a market table set up with items like grains, cell phones, toys and most crucial of all: water. Xin and I circle around a large water tank, known as a bladder. Someone has to fill up the bladder. Usually, the burden falls on women and children. Luella says from experience in Darfur that next to the bladders, there was always a long line up of “gerry cans and children.”

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A sample market table at the exhibit, with pulses, toys and water tins.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends 2 gallons of water per person per day. In refugee camps, sometimes an entire family has not much more than this much to bathe, drink, cook and clean. We each take turns lifting a 2 gallon jug – it seems wholly inadequate to serve a family of four. By contrast: the average person in U.S. uses 90 gallons per day.

We view a sample latrine with a squat toilet, or two raised pads for you to place feet on while you squat and take care of business. I’m familiar with this rustic amenity, having been to India, but it seems far more primitive in context of already resource-deprived refugee camps. We also see a bleak, round device resembling an oil barrel – an incinerator to burn waste. I can only imagine the overwhelming smell of human bodies and waste.

Luella points out that smell is the only thing sense that this tour cannot replicate. Well, maybe sound too. It’s one thing to imagine roaring waves or a child’s screams as you cross the Atlantic, but I imagine that the reality is totally different.

Here, I part with another item: a bottle of pills. Hopefully, at this stage in my journey, I can get my medicine elsewhere.

At the fourth stop, we visualize the challenges of medical treatment in refugee encampments. Luella asks what medical concerns refugees face in camps, and they’re no-brainers: water usage, poor hygiene and overcrowding.

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But a greater menace is cholera. MSF sets up a replica cholera treatment center to bring home the reality of disease for Americans who will likely never have the misfortune to experience it. The treatment center contains simple wooden beds with holes in middle for patients to defecate into buckets underneath. Orange gloves and smaller buckets for washing are affixed to each bed. Luella dealt with cholera as a doctor on an MSF mission in Haiti. She says, remarkably, that Haiti never had cholera outbreak before 2010 earthquake, but due to foreign aid workers and soldiers, the country became a hotspot for the disease.

The worst thing we learn about though is child malnutrition. MSF doctors screen for malnutrition by measuring a multi-colored paper band around a child’s upper arm. Red indicates the child is dying of starvation. Luella demonstrates what it would look like if a child measured in the red; the loop the band forms is shockingly small, like measuring a six-month infant’s arm. We in the U.S. think of malnutrition and imagine swollen bellies, but this is something different altogether. The treatment: a hearty dose of therapeutic milk and some unpleasant-sounding paste called “Plumpy Nut.’

Oh, and what do I give up at this station? Water. Hopefully, I have access to safe drinking water now…but as the simulation has shown, that’s far from assured.

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A makeshift tent showing what a rudimentary refugee shelter might look like.

We make our way to the fifth and last stop on the physical tour, where we view temporary shelters and homes for refugees. One tent stands out to me: it’s a beautiful thing, adorned with simple flowery sheets and Persian-style rugs. It’s supposedly built for 2-3 families – though I would say putting more than five people in the tent would be a stretch Luella leaves us with one keen observation from her experience: people tend to keep their tents spotless. They take great pride in these shelters, however small and ramshackle. “This is their home,” she says.

Luella also points to pictures of a makeshift refugee camp surrounded by mud and refuse in Grande-Synthe, France. In the end, Luella tells us frankly, but not unkindly, no one wants these refugees, and they’re stuck in the middle of their journey to England. They can’t go back or forward. (Note: the camp closed earlier this fall after French authorities razed it to the ground, leaving many migrants still in limbo.)

And what is the very last object that I give up? My passport. I hold onto that thing for dear life until the very end. Because I know that, even as a fictional refugee, that passport could make the difference in moving me forward to a safe place or sending me back to a place of no return.

Before we move on to the optional virtual reality tent, we stop to chat with Luella for a few minutes. She feels mixed emotions whenever she leaves a mission, because she has a home in Canada, but then has to leave behind the refugees – the people who have had a tremendous impact on her life. Her parting words about her work as an MSF volunteer: “We’re there to pick up the pieces. Or we try to.”

We warmly bid Luella farewell, and head into a large white tent where people sit dumbly on stools, with black goggles wrapped around their heads, some of then spinning around. A young male volunteer shows us how to use the headsets. We can rotate on the stool to view the video in 360 degrees. “Just don’t stand up,” he says. “Some people become nauseous.” Right-o.

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The headset for the virtual reality or ‘360’ degree video.

This is my first time using virtual reality, and it’s totally mind-boggling. A red cursor appears on the screen, and I have to tilt my head to move the cursor around the screen. I select the first video and see a woman in a refugee camp in Tanzania. Her name is Ange. Sitting around a cooking fire as children amble around her, Ange talks about her harrowing experience fleeing Burundi, which is approaching a state of civil war as the government violently suppresses protests against the election of President Pierre Nkurunziza to his third term to office.

I rotate on the stool and see other refugees in the background carrying water though the muddy dirt roads of the camp. I feel as if I’m standing right there alongside them, though it’s hard to focus on Ange’s words at times though because I’m so distracted spinning around.

I watch a second video featuring a woman in the Bekaa Valley refugee camp in Lebanon. She fled Syria with her family, and was supporting her children by working with MSF in the camp. Back in Syria, they always heard stories of refugees and wars happening in other countries on the news, and felt pity. “We never thought we’d be in a war.” Hearing her words…it hits home the concept of privilege, and how easily war strips away that entitled sense of security.

At the end of the video, clothes swing on a line in the wind. While this clip plays, a breeze blows into the tent where I’m sitting. For a long moment, I get the haunting impression of being in the Bekaa Valley, just one refugee or IDP among millions in a world, to which, I am utterly invisible.

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 With the worldwide refugee crisis at an all-time high – there are more displaced people now than there have been since World War II – and xenophobic rhetoric reaching alarming levels, there is no better time for individuals to educate themselves on the refugee crisis than now. To learn more about the exhibit, visit ForcedfromHome.com. P.S. – Holiday shopping tip: if you buy items on smile.amazon.com, and select ‘Doctors without Borders,’ a portion of your purchase will be donated to the organization.

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