Thursday, April 23, 2015

a place in the sun

La sangre sin fuego hierve. Blood boils without fire
- Mexican Proverb

I've spent a little bit of time in Mexico recently. Actually, it's been quite a bit of time. Yet it's never enough. There are so many things I love about Mexico: the food, the ocean, the people. But I can't forget about the sun. In Mexico, the sun is an entity in and of itself. It calls the shots; when we wake up, when we go to sleep, how we spend our days. It has been both lovely for me as well as painful. My first trip to Mexico I burned my feet being out in the sun too long, and they swelled up into giant tomatoes. I learned my lesson.

I try to never miss a sunset when 
I'm on the Gulf Coast of Mexico

The sun in Mexico is almost always shining. Even when it rains, a few minutes later the sun inevitably comes out. It's a sunny place. The sun shines down upon us, a constant reminder of the heat we must endure every day in this endlessly tropical climate. So it's not really surprising what I'm going to talk about next. The energy of the sun can only lead us to one possible conclusion. That's right, I'm going to talk about solar energy. I recently learned an important lesson about using the sun's energy.

I must admit that I'm still learning about solar energy. And a lot of what I do know I learned very recently, both in a classroom as well as in practice. I have lived in a hot, tropical, sunny climate. I have left a clear bottle of water out in the sun. Heck, I've even left one in my car on a sunny day. How hot was the water? Hot enough to burn. And hot enough to cook.

This is what the local people I visited in Mexico already knew; the sun can cook things (other than just their skin). Yet, they weren't, to the best of my knowledge, really utilizing the sun's power for cooking. I needed to find out why. There had to be a reason (or reasons). But before I could find out what people knew and didn't know about the sun, what the locals were or weren't using the sun for and why (or why not), I was beat to the punch. Because a group of generous souls set up solar cookers for these same villages where I spend much of my Mexico time. 

A new solar box cooker

Don Alejandro shows off a new & highly 
efficient wood burning stove.

What have I learned since these solar cookers were introduced to the villages? The sun is hot. And everywhere. And free. Except that it's not free; not exactly anyway. There are so many costs, some I saw coming, but some of which were totally unforeseen. I have to admit I was surprised how enthusiastic everyone was when they saw a demonstration of the solar cookers. There are a few types (solar oven, solar stove, efficient wood burning stove) and they're all impressive. However, they are all small. Too small. And expensive. Too expensive.

They cook one pot of beans. Which isn't enough. We know it's not. Because we asked. And because I thought about it. I can't remember the last time I used one pot to cook a meal for a group of people. Especially one involving rice, beans, meat and tortillas. 

They are cost prohibitive. This we also know. How expensive are they? Well, using the cheapest materials we could find, they are still too expensive. Honestly, anything over thirty dollars is out of the locals' price range.

However, seeing the demand for the solar cookers, I saw an opportunity from my capitalistic American point of view. They just needed to set up a stove factory. I was certain the completed stoves would sell like hot cakes. As long as we could get the cost down. So we would have to be creative. We would have to use alternative, and thus cheaper, materials and buy in bulk. We would have to design an equally efficient stove using new designs. And then we would have to get the stoves to actually work. But I knew it was a good idea. Build the stoves, I thought, and they will come.

I suggested to a few local friends that they might want to be the ones to capitalize on this untapped high demand marketplace. My friends looked at my like I was out of my head (more-so than normal, as I tend to offer up pretty nutty ideas to anyone who will listen). They couldn't imagine how to make the ovens more cheaply. But I pushed them on this point. I knew it would be possible. I just didn't exactly know how.

The original design for the solar box cooker (an oven)

The materials and ingenuity question weren't actually the biggest barriers my friends needed to overcome. They first needed start-up funds; they didn't have the necessary amount of cold hard cash. So I started to channel my inner venture capitalist. We would simply search for some start-up funding. It would be easy. We knew people in Merida. They would have money. After all, we were planning to set up a small solar cooker making operation, not a high tech computer company. How hard could it be?

The answer is hard. But also easy. Because i
t turns out it is possible to cut down the cost of the cookers by using alternative materials and increasing quantity. So we don't need a lot of funds. Just a few supportive friends with a little bit of money. Which we found we have. In spades. And just how will we design less expensive stoves? Turns out we have friends who know how to do this as well. We are rich in resources. 

I have high hopes we'll be able to drop the cost of the ovens significantly. But we still have miles to go before they can become affordable to the local population. But I know it will happen. We will figure it out. It is possible. Nada hay nuevo debajo del sol. There is nothing new under the sun.

Friday, April 10, 2015

fitness therapy

Coming down from my marathon high, I had to decide where to go next. While I wasn't about to give up running any time soon, I found myself longing for something new. And because of the weight I had gained while training for the marathon, I was also looking for a way to kick start my metabolism. Years ago, running had done that. A few years ago, after settling into my running routine, I started lifting weights with a trainer and, no surprise, the new exercise gave my metabolism another nice boost. So once again I found myself at a crossroads. Where should I go next?

With no shortage of workouts available to me, I chose TRX. Or rather, I decided to give a few new workouts a try and TRX came out on top. For now. I'm not an all or nothing kind of person. While training for the marathon, I would lift weights, run intervals, climb stairs, go for (short) bike rides, and practice Yoga and Zumba. The majority of my workouts were runs, but not all of them.

The past few years I've also tried working out at home. I'm a fan of Jillian Michaels - I find her voice less annoying than others and her workouts tough. But home workouts weren't cutting it for me. I could just crap out easily and no one (except my belly) would ever notice.

I first decided to sign up for a month of unlimited classes at a nearby gym. Actually, it's a gym located directly on my commute home from work. The gym had two very important components and these are the reasons I chose it above all others. It offered classes in the evening. And it had online class registration. It was very no nonsense. You sign up. Then you go. All I had to do was go that first time (always the hardest for me).

And I went. I didn't know much about the gym or the types of workouts it offered or what I was going to experience. I did know the gym wasn't CrossFit and I had heard (and read) great things about TRX. But I don't think I really understood how tough the classes would be. I had just run a marathon, after all. I could easily conquer anything they could throw at me.

Well, this particular gym has become my sanctuary. The classes are small. Everyone knows your name. So I continue to go. And work my butt off. The gym offers a small variety of classes. The two I rotate between are HIIT (high intensity interval training) and TRX (total body resistance exercise). HIIT is basically indoor boot camp. TRX is basically a trapeze. Except not really. It's a set of adjustable stirrups used to help you throw your own weight around. It requires coordination and is not a natural fit for someone as uncoordinated as myself. Yet I find myself loving it. My own weight has caused me to work muscles in my arms I never thought existed. TRX has caused me to feel the burn while holding a plank, feet still inside the stirrups. And pressing my own body weight has caused me to spend the better part of my first week in pain. And yet, I go back for more.

My TRX and the class set of TRXs

I tried a few other gyms on my quest to mix up my post-marathon workouts. From Orange Theory to track workouts, these programs involved too much running. As I runner, I know that criticism might sound strange. But running is the thing I do myself. If my goal is to work out hard, I don't really enjoy a class where half of it is spent on a treadmill (for so many reasons). I still run outside several times a week; varied short midweek runs and one long run every Sunday. This is my recovery/training program. And it feels like it's working. Every run is less exhausting than it was before. At times I even feel light on my feet.
A little motivation at the gym

Because in addition to my interval, short, and long runs, I go a small gym. Where everyone is kind. And there's no waiting in line. There are only people who swear by the TRX. I just mostly swear at it. I think I have a love-hate relationship with the suspension stirrups. But I can feel my body transforming. I can hold positions longer. I don't know how long this new fad workshop mechanism will keep me satisfied, but I'm enjoying the ride. Once over the steep learning curve, the TRX has quickly become the mechanism with which I will transform my body. And it definitely passes the time more quickly than the elliptical machine ever will. And that's good enough for now.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015


Every industry has its fair share of buzzwords. From social impact investing to emotional intelligence, it feels as though more and more industry terms are being inserted into everyday jargon with each passing year. The "new" term being passed around every board room in my non-profit industry last year was "collective impact." What does it mean? Well, it means exactly what it sounds like; a group (the collective) working strategically together can create a deeper impact. In other words, it's a shared vision for change. This is not a new idea. So why all the buzz surrounding this buzzword?

The difference between Collaboration (old concept) and 
Collective Impact (new, slightly different, concept)

We are all guilty of using these terms. We buy in to the buzz. From level five leadership to leaning in, no one is immune from throwing these terms around in conversation. But do these words really matter all that much? They sound like great concepts and will most likely help a lot of people. But I still believe that actions speak louder than words. Even louder than the most popular words of the year.

Because I still believe in actual sustainability. Good old sustainability, the biggest buzzword of them all (in my industry). I'm no stranger to the term; I've been working toward sustainability for the majority of my life. It's the very basis of why I do what I do. I am constantly asking myself, "why am I working so hard for change if it doesn't turn out to be long lasting? What will my program's impact really turn out be?" Despite all the new buzzwords, these are still the main things I care about thinking through and discussing.

Every day I find myself still relying heavily on measuring the "sustainability." But what is sustainability? And why do I care so much about it? Because sustainability is still the mother of all end results; it is meant to signify success. It's meant to move the needle. It's meant to bring about change in the world.

But how does one buzzword accomplish so much? Because it's not about the word itself nor its definition. It's about the thought process. That's what all these ideas and phrases have in common. They remind us to remember to act collectively. To remember to lean in (only if you want to). To remember to measure your ROI and to present your company as a social impact investment.

I recently heard the following quote, "if you want creativity, take a zero off your budget. If you want sustainability, take off two zeros."1 This quote makes me smile every time I come across it. It's a pretty honest reminder to stay focused. To stay cheap and stick to your grassroots. But also don't forget about your sustainability plan. 

Keep sustainability in mind all the time. Even if it becomes your mantra. Even if you can't stand hearing the word even one more time. Let it guide every action you take. Don't throw a dart at a board, grab some money and run off to a place you know nothing about. Be smart. Be thoughtful. Be long-lasting. In other words, be sustainable. Be willing to change. And if you're like me, become a part of this change. Pick your passions. Start small if you have to. But don't be afraid to get big. 

I can see my big picture. I know what I want for the next generation. I want all high school seniors to graduate this year. I want every mother and daughter across the globe to get an education; the highest they can possibly find. I don't want women's rights or gay rights or minority rights to exist; can we please just eliminate the qualifiers already and look at the "rights" of all? 

Ten years later, my Honduran host brother is still studying. 
However my host sisters are not.

I can't do everything I want to and I don't plan to. If I do my piece well, then I've truly achieved something. Because perhaps through the course of my existence I'll have helped one or two or hopefully even ten people out of a vicious cycle of poverty. Because that's what is important to me. And I certainly don't work at it alone. I choose to surround myself with like-minded people; people who also want to be a part of the change. People who also thrive on this change, as tough as it may be. People who also want to watch change pass on through a few generations before calling it a success. People who want to see this change become truly sustainable. Because it means we're not needed anymore; our jobs are done. And it's an incredible feeling. One I very much look forward to experiencing one day.

For even more fun, check out this sustainability buzzword generator game.

For sustainable grassroots development, join the Peace Corps. Just kidding (maybe). 

And check out Proyecto Itzaes. The most sustainable education program I've ever come across (and that's saying a lot).


Tuesday, March 10, 2015

the killers

I find myself going through phases. Sometimes I'm a hobby person, other times I'm not. I find I have a wide variety of rapidly passing interests. Except for one. Most of my life I have stuck to one very specific interest. It's the same interest I've had since I was in high school; it has never wavered. I'm interested in true crime.

What do I mean by interested? Well, I spend my free time learning about different types of killers. Before you call the police and then go running for the hills, let me clarify what I mean by learning about killers. First, I'm not learning about killing. I'm not really interested in the gory part. It's just so...gory. I usually look away during a horror movie. I'm not into seeing nor reading about any of the blood and guts. That's not what I mean by learning about killers.

I mean learning about the people behind the killing. The individuals who have gone off the straight and narrow. Because, well, I simply find all people interesting. Everyone has a story and if you tell me yours, I'll gladly listen. I'll be all yours while you fill me in. I just find stories of murder and mayhem to be more interesting than other types of stories.  Because when it comes to the real serial murderers, they are by far the most compelling. Because they are real. And they all have some of the most incredible stories.

And in this regard I know I am not alone. The number of books about murder, the number of movies about crime, the number of TV shows investigating murders and murderers is never ending.

Ann Rule, a prolific true crime author, worked as a police detective alongside Ted Bundy in Seattle. 
She also had the privilege of figuring out just what Bundy was up to.

So why has this life-long hobby of mine become so incredibly popular lately? Looking at the prime-time TV guide lineup, there are no less than 20 shows centered specifically around serial killers (real and fictional alike). So why the massive number of serial killer shows? Your guess is as good as mine. According to the whole of the internet, audiences love sexy killers who can let loose and act out our own violent fantasies. I do not agree. I have no interest in the good looking TV killers; most real life US serial killers are white middle aged men and they're the ones I read about. I just love a good mystery. With a little psychology thrown in for fun.

My interest in serial killers began one week back in 1994. I watched one specific TV program every day: the Biography Channel's "serial killer series." It had all the greats; Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, Gary Ridgway, Ed Gein, Albert DeSalvo. Five hours of the real lives of the most prolific American serial killers in history was just enough to solidify my interest for life. These men were, in a word, fascinating. What makes someone kill like this; without conscience? Without remorse, and, for a while at least, without getting caught? I had to know more.

Twenty years later I know a lot more. I know that serial killers kill for one or more of the following reasons; greed, power, need for intimacy, fear of rejection, and perfectionism. Serial killers act with a high amount of control and a lack of morals. I find these individuals (mostly men, but there are a few women) utterly reprehensible. I do not like what they do. But I strive to understand why they do it. And I always want to know more. 

And I do know more. Through the years I've also learned that serial killers wet the bed until a very late age, experiment with killing and torturing animals, hide their victims in secret, keep trophies from the victims and never express remorse. These things only an avid serial killer profiler knows. Just watch an episode of Criminal Minds.

Except that I'm not a real profiler. I'm not even a psychologist. So what am I doing playing amateur detective/therapist? What are millions of people just like me also doing? We're all trying to understand the murderer behind the Fall or the Following. The mystery behind True Detective or the the hundreds of other shows just like it.

Last year I went to a documentary about Jeffrey Dahmer. It was real footage taken from inside Dahmer's apartment when it was raided by police. They found no less than 17 skulls of young boys, all with differing holes in them. That's when I learned that Dahmer was trying to make a young boy zombie sex slave. He'd grab a boy and perform his own version of a frontal lobe lobotomy. The boy would be a zombie for a few hours, then die. So Dahmer would repeat the whole process again, the next time slightly altering the location of the brain hole. He knew he would eventually get it right. This is insanity at its very core. And yet it is totally, completely fascinating.

My own copy of a graphic novel created by a former High School classmate of Dahmer's. 
It tells a compelling, if not super graphic, story. It has also become incredibly popular. 

Perhaps I take my interest in killers a bit further than the average American TV watcher. But still I know there are millions of us; sitting at home, watching scary movies and reading true crime books. While serial killers aren't nearly as prolific as TV would lead us to believe, their stories are out there. And they're real. And captivating. And completely entertaining. If you like that sort of thing. Which I most definitely do.

Huffington Post recently recommended ten true crime documentaries currently on Netflix. While I've seen most of these movies, I still prefer reading about true crimes.

A few of my favorite true crime novels include:
Devil in the White City
In Cold Blood
Green River Running Red
The Stranger Beside Me
Death in the City of Light

Tuesday, February 24, 2015


I have a lot of stories from my years in the Peace Corps. I have a least a dozen stories that involve all sorts of shenanigans, from the campaign to get Eddy Urbina front teeth to the time my mom hopped on a random stranger's horse and rode away, bareback.

But no other story holds a candle to the one involving two large men, a small cat, my living room, and a Spanish book of yoga poses from 1972. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

I've gotten more and more into storytelling this past year. Having a blog will do that to you. And just as I'm getting into writing stories, the Northern California Returned Peace Corps Association (NorCal) starts up a storytelling series, the Story Jam. Over the past year, Story Jam has consisted of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers getting up on stage and telling their stories. I'd been meaning to attend a Story Jam for months. Because before I knew it, I was standing on stage telling my tale of lost love. Below is my story.

Or you can listen to the audio version of the story here:
And the video version is available here:

In my home in Gualaco, Olancho, Honduras I had mice. They would pitter-patter every night on the side of my bed, trying to crawl into it with me. So I got a cat. I didn't have mice anymore. 

Instead, I had a best friend. This was a very special cat. "Mi Primer Mascota." My first pet. I named her Bella, bathed her, put a flea collar on her, brushed her fur, let her sleep in the bed with me, potty trained her, and even bought her Gati, special cat food only found in the capital of my department, over two hours away.

The kids loved playing with Bella

Everyone in the village knew my cat; my special gringa cat (pink and white striped "gringa" flea collar and all). I loved this cat with all my heart and soul. When you are the only person living in a small village without your family, you have two choices: you can either miss your family inconsolably. Or you can make your own family. Bella was my family. I named her after my Aunt. I would take pictures of Bella and send them to my mom. I had never had a pet before and Bella was 100% mine.

Meanwhile, I was a new Peace Corps volunteer, always looking for something to fill my time. Around the same time I left for my two plus years in Honduras, my best friend decided to quit her job and move to a yoga retreat in Hawaii. Despite my reluctance to accept yoga into my life at the time, she had sent me off with a deck of yoga cards. I couldn't think of a better project to occupy my time than translating the yoga cards into Spanish. Frequently people would see me around town, at the school using the copier machine, or at the internet cafe, translating the instructions into Spanish. It took up a lot of time.

My yoga deck of poses

One of the very best things about living in my village was the Sierra de Agalta National Park that surrounded us. A group of Gualacans (my people) were "guides" who knew the park like the back of their hands. They would lead me to the Caves of Susmay any time I wanted. They helped me climb La Picucha, the tallest mountain in our department. These guys had day jobs, but being guides was the thing they were most proud of. I spent countless days with these guys; they became my closest friends.

So it wasn't too surprising when I got a knock on my door at 9pm one night. I was almost in bed. But Moncho (real name Ramon) and Eddy were at my door and they were super excited; they had just found a book, in Spanish, of yoga from 1972. And they couldn't wait share this information with me. What the hell, I thought, yoga hasn't changed in a few thousands years, what's another 20? Their poses should be the same as mine.

Moncho asked me if he could show me what he'd been working on. I didn't see why not. It was late, but they were already here and they were so excited. So Moncho quickly swept my living room floor clean and started one of the most difficult poses in all of yoga; he would attempt to do a tripod, leading into a head stand. 

Here's the thing about Moncho Belis: Moncho is a great guy, heart of gold, but also a former alcoholic always one step away from falling back off the wagon. His years of drinking had begun to catch up with him and he was what Hondurans refer to as "panzon." He had a literal beer gut. This guy weighed at least 200 pounds.

Moncho & Eddy

So to watch Moncho attempt the headstand was nothing short of miraculous.  But, along he went: elbows on the ground, legs on his arms, legs heading straight up in the air, and then legs coming down faster than you could imagine. But that's when I saw it. I gasped in horror as Moncho sat up. I was the first person to see the blood that completely covered his back. Then I saw my cat. Bella then started running around in little circles, blood shooting out the side of her head. Finally she dropped down dead and I just took off running, screaming and crying. I woke up the entire town. "What's the crazy gringa going on about now?" they started asking each other.

Where I went wasn't all that much of a mystery. I went to the home of my then Honduran boyfriend. I banged on the door, screaming for him. He was the only other person in the town who could even fathom how much I loved this cat. I woke him up. I also woke up his entire family. I screamed, "Moncho la mato, Moncho la mato!" - "Moncho killed her". And that's when things went from bad to worse. See, my boyfriend's brother's name is also Moncho. So his mom and dad thought either a. someone had killed their son Moncho or b. their son Moncho had killed a girl. Either way, it was looking bad. Everyone was upset.

And then my boyfriend had to explain a completely foreign concept to his parents; Karen was inconsolably upset because Moncho Belis had just killed her cat. Relieved their own son Moncho was okay, they started to stare confusingly right at me. At that point they knew I was crazy; how could I get so upset about an animal? Animals were meant to be kept outside, literally at arm's length all the time. It's not like a family member was gone.

Once I had mostly calmed down, I knew I had to go back home, to confront the scene of the crime. I headed home. Moncho was gone, but Eddy was there waiting for me. The floor was mostly cleaned up, but it still looked like the scene of a very bloody crime. And it was beginning to smell like one.

Eddy told me that Moncho had gone home. That's when I realized what my running away had done; it had told Moncho that I couldn't look at him ever again. But that wasn't true.  It was a freak yoga accident that killed my beloved cat. It was absolutely an accident.

I knew I had to talk to Moncho right away, so I went right over to his house. He was so sad, I just couldn't be mad at him. He very apologetically told me, "Karen, I am a lover of all animals. I could and would never hurt your cat. My children can attest to this fact. I have never harmed another living creature in my life!" 

Remember I mentioned these guys all had day jobs? Well, Moncho was a fumigator. The emotional side of me knew it was just an accident; the logical side of me knew we'd have to some day revisit just what it meant to be a fumigator by profession.

Back at home we put Bella in a box. I apologized to everyone around me for my crazy outburst that night, but my period of mourning had already begun. I put a sign on the door. "Hubo un accidente, no hay clases hoy." There was an accident, there are no classes today. I wasn't about to start telling everyone what Moncho had done. 

But I lived in a small town; everyone already knew. By noon the next day, Moncho already had the nickname "Matagato." Cat-killer. The cat was out of the bag. Everyone knew Moncho Belis had killed my cat.

We ended up burying Bella in my backyard. Eventually I accepted what had happened to her. And what about me and Moncho? I really did forgive him and we ended up becoming great friends. Even if he is a matagato.

Watch out for the cat-killer!