Holiday Greetings, dear friends!
Hujambo – Namaste – Seulam – Bună ziua – Здравей – Goddag – Saludos – Saluti!
We hope this finds you happy, healthy and enjoying this year’s holiday season and the myriad reasons to be excited about 2009 and beyond. Despite the global turmoil swirling around us all, hope and change are also afoot – always remembering that we are still among the most fortunate people in the world for the blessings and opportunities that we have.
This has been an intense, challenging and rewarding year for both Jerry and me. Lots of adventures together – from the Serengeti (east Africa) to Tamil Nadu (southern India) to rural Bulgaria, along with those closer to home in San Francisco. Lots of work – Jerry’s consultancy continues to flourish (see his website, blog, tweets and photostream), and my legal and strategic role with Unitus, and continued law-and-microfinance teaching for IDLO keep me more than busy. Oh, and I blog, tweet and post photos online too! Thankfully this year has also included lots of fun, so let’s begin the annual review…
The first couple of months of 2008 were all about change and adjustment for me (with Jerry as loving observer and coach). In my new position as Director of Venture Development for Unitus, almost every day has meant some new challenge or opportunity to tackle. Unitus does both non-profit and for-profit investment in international microfinance, which basically means that we’re on the cutting edge of the sector. Some of my favorite projects have included establishing a merchant bank for microfinance institutions (MFIs) called Unitus Capital, establishing a Unitus office in Kenya, and working with lawyers from around the world. It’s been fascinating to learn about everything from Indian employment law to Singaporean tax law.
We managed a long weekend getaway to Big Sur in January but otherwise stayed nearby until mid-March, when we headed to southern India for 3 weeks. The main purpose of the trip was to teach the next IDLO microfinance installment in Chennai (Madras) – especially because Jerry has also now been taken on as IDLO faculty and teaches a module on ‘Social Media for MFIs’ so it’s truly a tandem collaboration. After time in the capital of Tamil Nadu, we headed south to Mamallapuram and saw the areas directly devastated by the 2004 tsunami. From there Jerry had to head back to the U.S. while I continued on to Pondicherry (and the wacky yoga-utopia of Sri Aurobindo‘s ashram and ‘international peace community’ of Auroville) and then over into the region of Karnataka, spending time in Bangalore (where Unitus also has an office) and the fantastic cultural capital of Mysore. It was great to have an opportunity to travel ‘on my own’ again like years past, though I must admit I far prefer having Jerry along as a travel-adventure-life partner – so much more fun!
Back in California, it was nose-to-the-grindstone again for another spate of intense work through early summer. We attended our first gay wedding wearing matching traditional salwar kameez outfits from India (while someone yanked the stereo from our car), had friends visit from Europe and took several local hiking excursions, but otherwise laid fairly low… until July, when it was time to travel again for IDLO – this time to Eastern Europe!
Our first stop was London, where I took Jerry down memory lane and enjoyed being back in England (without having to work round the clock). From there we headed to Bucharest to teach; it was an amazing experience to be with Kosovars when Karadzic was captured (new age healer?) and Bulgarians when their country was stripped of €2 billion in EU accession funds due to ongoing corruption concerns there. Speaking of Bulgaria, post-Bucharest we hopped over the border and explored some of the beautiful mountainous regions of the north. We based ourselves out of Veliko Tarnovo and had a great time exploring quaint villages, stone-cut monasteries and frescoed churches (complete with an impromptu choral concert which left us speechless). Jerry also managed to get pulled over in our Romanian-rented car by the Bulgarian police… twice!
We returned to San Francisco on the eve (literally) of one of the year’s highlights – a visit by my sister Allison, brother-in-law Stefan and nieces Ella (8) and Amelia (5). We had a great time enjoying the Bay Area through kids’ eyes (and got a crash course in what it would be like to have little ones in Noe Valley). Favorite memories include the Exploratorium, some nearby secret slides (‘best use of taxpayer money,’ according to Stefan), rides in Jerry’s 1962 Sunbeam Alpine convertible named Fiona, and running the SF half-marathon/5K together.
Exhausted but very happy following the family visit, we settled in once again to several weeks of uninterrupted ‘local time’ and hard work in late summer / early fall. It was really nice to have this period to tackle various projects, see friends and basically enjoy our backyard (well, that and our garden are under construction but you get the gist). It was also a good time to spend together, as we knew that our respective travel schedules would soon heat up again. And indeed they did!
Between October and the holidays we spent more time on the road than at home. It was a wonderful period for both of us, though there were instances when we couldn’t remember what time zone the other was in… and quite honestly we’re happy to simply be safe, healthy and still standing at the end. Jerry’s itinerary included Copenhagen, Madrid, Milan and NYC, while I traveled to Washington DC, London, Cambridge (for a Harvard reunion), Ethiopia (via Syria) and Kenya. Ultimately we met up in Tanzania in November – hurray! We then spent the next few weeks teaching in Dar es Salaam, exploring wildlife and local communities near the Serengeti and wandering around Zanzibar and the Spice Islands.
Highlights from east Africa are too numerous to list. For me it was eye-opening to meet with cabinet ministers and present about microfinance in Addis Ababa, and to spend time in rural western Kenya (read: no electricity, hot water or indoor plumbing for a week) doing MFI site visits and microloan disbursements. I also got to meet Obama’s paternal grandmother Sarah in the very far-flung village of Kogelo. The entire east African region is overtaken by Obamania; we were thrilled to be among the first post-election unofficial “foreign ambassadors.”
The IDLO course was perhaps the best one to date – the group of participants was energetic, engaged and excited to learn (8 blogs already established!) and the venue on the Indian Ocean was perfect. From Dar we took a 10 hour bus ride north to Arusha, our jumping-off point for a mini safari-hiking-biking excursion through local villages.
We saw lions, hippos, elephants, giraffes, wildebeests and much more at frighteningly close range in the Ngorongoro Crater, cycled on muddy rutted paths through banana plantations and hiked along the Great Rift Valley with our local Maasai guide. (Observation: The real life of Africa happens far off paved roads and is both inspiring and sobering – Tanzania’s average per capita income is $283 per year). From here we flew to the island of Zanzibar – seeing snow-capped Mount Kilimanjaro en route – and finished this letter. As appropriate for a visit to the Spice Islands, we’ve tromped through clove, vanilla, cinnamon, pepper, cardamom, ginger, turmeric, annatto, cacao, henna, curry leaves, lemongrass and nutmeg/mace groves and sampled jackfruit, breadfruit, star fruit, passion fruit and giant green grapefruit. We’ve also enjoyed the pristine white beaches (dolphins swim nearby), the delightful labyrinth of old Stone Town and the Swahili culture – a fusion of Arabic, Persian, African, Indian and European influences.
Come December, all we can say is… wow. We are grateful for the tremendous opportunities we have had to see, do, explore and learn this year and all the truly inspirational people we have met along the way. It’s hard to say for sure how things will unfold for us in the new year, though we’re happy to stay home for a little while at least. We know already that our plans for 2009 will include time in Jordan, Italy, Atlanta and Colorado, but beyond that… well, let’s just say that we are very open and excited to the many changes that are underway in the U.S. and beyond (though plan to keep roots in San Francisco!). There is so much need in the world, ways to collaborate within the global community and potential for bringing about meaningful positive change. As to where and how we might be part of that, well, you’ll have to stay tuned for next year’s letter!
Sending you all warmest wishes for a peaceful holiday season and an extraordinary 2009,
April and Jerry