Running Ragged

We’ve been on the island of Bantayan for a week now, and what a week it has been. Our volunteers and Young Pioneer Disaster Response staff have been running themselves ragged. On a recent supply run in Cebu, I had to buy a ticket to a movie so I could have a place to sleep midday. It was a Filipino movie — some comedy about a call center and family drama.. I had an excellent nap before heading back to the hardware store.

We are moving right along with our projects on Bantayan Island. While we had originally intended to begin work on the Santa Fe Elementary School, we found the Santa Fe National High School to be a better place to begin our work, so on our second day we started work there. Already we have repaired the administrative building and are almost finished deconstructing two more buildings that were doubly damaged by Typhoon Yolanda and the recent massive earthquake. In the next few days we will begin the process of rebuilding them.

But building schools is no longer our only focus. We have found several areas of the relief effort on the island that are lacking, and we have been unable and unwilling to ignore them.

  • On day 2 we found a supply drop that several organizations were bringing food and medicine and temporary shelters to, but nobody was giving them out.
  • On day 3 we were awarded the warehouse to manage and coordinate.
  • On day 4 we were granted access to every piece of heavy machinery on the island, complete with drivers and fuel, for free. Day 4 also found us coordinating the first ever meeting of the other (much larger) relief organizations on the island, to help coordinate efforts.
  • On day 5 we had that meeting, to great effect, and we rebuilt two homes, one of them for only $55 USD. We also met with the mayor, who gave us an island — one of the smaller ones near Bantayan — for whose relief supplies we are now responsible.
  • On day 6 we brought a donated truck to the island to help deliver food and supplies around the island. We also installed the islands first clean water supply since the storm using a filter that we procured in Cebu for nothing.

All this with a $20,000 budget. There are other agencies with multimillion dollar budgets that are handing out expensive temporary housing or giving out medical care (between the hours of 1pm and 4pm). They are focused on the now. We are focusing on long term solutions for the future, and we are being smart about the money. Give us $5 million like some of these other guys, and I bet we can rebuild the entire island.

  • We are working to build sustainable, low-cost, sturdy new school buildings for the Santa Fe National High School. Our current plan would mean the new buildings would be typhoon- and earthquake-proof, so they could double as a shelter for the next storm.
  • We are working with local authorities to identify the long-term needs and goals of the island, specifically ways to reboot and boost the tourism industry. We believe that by bringing more tourists to the island, job creation would draw some of the fishermen of the island off their boats. This would result in both additional money in the local economy and the return of fish to the shores of Bantayan, who have disappeared recently due to overfishing.
  • We are assisting in supply runs to deliver food to families all over the island, as well as feeding several hundred children lunch every few days.
  • We are providing the island with clean drinking water.

The progress that YPDR has made thus far is incredible to me, and I hope that people who read this will realize how important our tasks are. Bantayan Island was 95% destroyed by the Typhoon. We have a lot of work to do. And we must raise the funds with which to do it.

For more information on our cause, and to give to it, please visit:

For pictures of our work and real-time updates:

I’m back in Cebu for more supplies, and I’m exhausted. Maybe it’s time for another nap. I haven’t been sleeping much.


Last night at midnight, the Young Pionee

Last night at midnight, the Young Pioneer Disaster Response Team arrived at our staging house in Cebu loaded with over one ton of supplies and gear. Our team of 5 YPT Staff and 18 volunteers is busy today making preparations for our first day of work on Bantayan Island tomorrow. We will be leaving for Bantayan in the middle of the night to make the first ferry in the AM. We will be joining forces with another group of 50 volunteers from Volunteer in Cebu to begin rebuilding the schools of this region which has been devastated by Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda. The team is off to a great start, but needs your continuing support in order to maximize our effectiveness in accomplishing this immense task. Please visit and give what you can to our indiegogo fundraising campaign. Every little bit helps:

YPT Disaster Response Team – Manila

It’s been a hectic month.

I’ve been living in a two-floor apartment in Beijing. My friend Jonas set me up on a couch there when I arrived. Before long, I was just a wall-fly, having pitched my tent on that tiny red couch with peeling fake leather bits that got stuck to any available fabric.

Jonas and his roommate Katy live on the first floor. The second floor is owned by Young Pioneer Tours, who use it as a staging ground for their employees on either end of tours that start out of Beijing. Through this serendipitous connection, I became acquainted to the YPT crowd over the past 2 months, and a few weeks ago I agreed to take over Katy’s room when she leaves for Grad School at the end of this year. Then Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda hit on November 8.

Two days after the typhoon I was contacted by one of the YPT guys, Chris, who asked if I would be interested in helping out in the Philippines to do some reconstruction/relief. Having no job and an interest in doing something productive, I agreed, thinking I could go down for 2 weeks or so. Then 2 weeks became a month-long commitment. And now it’s a 2 month commitment, at least.

Our plans unfolded over the course of the last three weeks. Working closely with locals on the ground in the Philippines, we sought out where we could be the most useful, where we could work without being in the way of other relief organizations, and where our dollar would go the farthest. We started putting out for volunteers from the YPT database. Then we got a story in the Bangor Daily News and the International Business Times, and volunteer requests started flooding in. As of this post we have had over 150 volunteering requests, with 50 confirmed flights over the next month.

We managed to raise over $12,000 in the first two weeks, and we’ve raised another $5,500 since then. Our goal is to raise at least $45,000 more by the end of the year, because our metric for success, thanks to the outpouring of support we have received, has gone from building a couple of houses to building a school to building all five schools on Bantayan Island. We believe the benefits of this project are three-fold:

  • The sooner the kids on the island get back to school, the sooner they are out of their parents’ hair, which will allow the families to rebuild their own lives.
  • Building a house helps one family. Building a school helps 50+ families.
  • We wanted to help the community. Schools are the basis for a successful community.

This is a huge project. We arrived in Manila on the 1st of December. We met up with 5 volunteers yesterday, and are meeting 7 more today. Tomorrow, the 4th, we get on a 22-hour boat to Cebu City, where we meet up with yet another 7 volunteers before we roll up to Bantayan Island on the 7th. Our team of 23 will arrive with a team of another 25 volunteers that we’ve partnered with to the island, with endless luggage and supplies in tow, ready to work.

Chris and I have been working 60-hour weeks the past three weeks, and we needed a break, which we took yesterday, joining our team thus far in downing six 3.5-liter towers of beer. But today we are off getting generators, supplies and equipment, as well as our ferry tickets.

Then there’s the Philippines as a country. I’ve only been in town for two days, but I love this place. The people are beyond nice, the food and drinks are cheap as can be, and the weather is amazing. It’s humid, but not overly so, and there’s often a breeze coming off the water, which is nice. Oh, and you can get hour-long shoulder and arm massages in a bar while you drink beer for $2.50.

Young Pioneer Tours and all our volunteers are beyond excited to get started on this project. We are putting our lives on a relative freeze, but when you have the time in your life you should try to make a difference if you can.

If you are reading this, please consider giving to our campaign. If you have the time and you want to volunteer, you are welcome to contact me at

Ps. Expect pictures and more stories to come in the coming weeks.


Please donate to our Philippines Relief Effort!

A few days ago a few friends and colleagues decided to forgo our December and January plans and head to the Philippines to help in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, locally known as Typhoon Yolanda. We are paying our own way there, but are raising money for essentials, like tools, tents, medicine, water, food, building materials, and more. Our team is comprised of EMTs, navy officers, farmers and builders, and people willing to just get their hands dirty and labor on behalf of those without the means.

Please please PLEASE donate to our cause. 100% of your donation is going straight to help the people most affected by the storm, in areas that relatively little is being done due to their remoteness and size. It would mean a lot to me if you could donate even $5 or $10.

The link to donate is at the beginning of this post. Or you can copy and paste the following URL into your browser:

Just shrug, it’s China

I’ve been in China for three weeks, and if there’s nothing else to report, this country is one gigantic dysfunctional bureaucracy.

I was inspired to begin writing this blog in the 20th minute that Jonas has spent yelling on the phone at a local pizza place. We had ordered using an online ordering service, and they have been running him in circles while he tries to explain that we had been delivered a cold, sauce-less, burnt and dry pizza. We want a new one, but they won’t just give us one. Jonas and I are about to actually bring the affected pie back to the restaurant (so much for the convenience of delivery) in order to prove his point and receive a complimentary pie…

A few weeks ago, another friend of mine and I were looking, coincidentally, for the same pizza place for a night out and, not finding it, ended up settling for Hooters’ Beijing branch. It was a sad scene – a carbon copy of the American version with absolutely no energy behind it. Really quite depressing. We ordered a set of 10 wings for an appetizer with a medium-level sauce. We were delivered 10 wings with hot sauce, a mistake we never noticed. Management did, though, then apologized for the mixup and, as they should have, and offered to bring us a new plate. We were delighted at the prospect of a plate of wings on the house. But this is China, and the concept of we-screwed-up-and-so-this-one-is-on-us is not a thing yet. They took our half-eaten plate of hot wings and replaced it with a plate of the correct type of sauce– with 6 wings on it. See, we had already eaten 4 of the other wings, so they saw fit to deprive us of 4 of the wings we ordered. Oh, and then the pitcher of beer we ordered turned out to only hold 3.5 pints, when 4 pints by the glass would have been cheaper, but that’s a matter of a different sort of frustration.

I blame the bureaucracy, Jonas blames the Chinese mentality. There’s no accountability when you have to run everything up the ladder. No one will take the blame, and they don’t feel bad about passing the buck on to you, because it’s not their fault. See, the person on the phone at Kro’s Nest didn’t make the pizza, so it’s not her fault, and she’d have to speak with her manager to figure out if she could make us a new one gratis. Whatever the reason, it’s absurd.

I should add that this is a restaurant that this apartment has ordered from a grand total of 6 times in the last 2 weeks. They make good pizzas. And we are clearly loyal customers, a fact that seems to not matter in this country.

The food industry is not alone in its absurd adherence to bureaucracy. I’ve had similar experiences at banks these last few weeks. I’ve been here for three weeks, as I said above, and have been to the bank about 30 times. I wish that were an exaggeration. I went to open my account, which took a few hours. Then I went to wire money into my new account from my American account, a task which is now running on 2 weeks without completion (the Chinese bank, ICBC, wouldn’t accept the wire without my middle name on the transfer order. That was two Fridays ago, so I spent last Monday on the phone with Chase to confirm my middle name, and then waited three business days for the transfer, but the weekend hit and no money…). I went again to exchange currency with a friend, and again to top up the apartment’s gas card for the kitchen stove. And countless times in between for various reasons.

Additionally, in a meeting I had recently with a representative of a high-end club in Beijing, I learned all about the various shortcomings of that industry. I met with this guy on behalf of a travel company that is looking to get a good deal on drinks and tables to bring their 1000+ customers every year. This guy’s job is to bring foreigners into this club, because while foreigners don’t spend as much, they know how to party and the Chinese customers who spend a fortune (thousands of dollars a night) want to see white people there (the country is actually fairly racist, in ways that manifest themselves strangely). He was very helpful, as Scandinavian businessmen usually are, but his bosses obstructed us every step of the way. A simple discount could pack his club with foreigners most weekends for the entire year, and the club would still make money. It’s a win-win. But implementation of such a brilliant scheme is proving to be difficult, simply because. Because it’s China.

As for the original topic for this memorandum, I half expect, as we head out to Kro’s Nest for our replacement pizza, for them to give us a new pie with 1.2 slices missing, which is approximately how much we had eaten before deciding that it was not worth it to continue. I’ll post an update when I know how it turns out…

I just have to keep reminding myself that, well shucks… it’s China.

UPDATE: It took two hours of walking around Sanlitun to find the place, and Jonas and I had to drag a pizza box the whole way. But we made it to Kro’s Nest, we gave them the pizza and, after a solid 30 minutes of waiting while they ran our situation up the ladder, we finally got our money back. No apology. No free pizza. No complimentary beer. Just our money back.

Best of Istanbul

From my last post one might assume, and not without some justification, that Istanbul is a depressing place to be. But I did have an amazing week, so I wanted to highlight some of the positives. For starters, I didn’t get much sleep. I was up early and out late. When I was in Istanbul last spring there were only three tourist stops I never made. Dolmabahçe Palace, the old city walls, and a visit to a Hamam. The first I knocked off on my second day in town. It’s a beautiful 19th century palace with a distinct Ottoman flare. It’s also where Atatürk died. ImageFront entrance to Dolmabahçe Sarayı. We weren’t allowed to take photos inside, so I only got a few dozen of them. Some came out really well, though. ImageImage Image The bed where Atatürk died, at 9:05am. The clock in the room has been stopped at that minute for the rest of, well, time.

The big excitement of my visit to Dolmabahçe Sarayı was in the gift shop. I looked everywhere, for the last year, for Atatürk Cufflinks. I wanted anything; a face, a signature… anything. I ended up making my own on Etsy a few months ago out of sheer frustration. Then I found these for only 25TL:


For some stupid reason I will never be able to explain, I didn’t buy them. I thought maybe I’d go back, or buy all three (there were two signatures and one with his face).. and I did go back, but not until Monday, when the palace is closed, and I left that night. I feel terrible about not buying them, but now that I know where they are, it’s only a matter of time… I will have them. Oh yes, I will have them. I met an American named Michael on my first day, and a day or two later met Shuman, an Englishman.


Shuman and I ended up trekking out to the old city walls along by the Pazartekke tramline stop. 


That afternoon the three of us met up at the Hippodrome to go to a Hamam. It was glorious. A little awkward, but glorious.


The Egyptian Obelisk with two of the Blue Mosque minarets in the background. Taken from the Hippodrome.

I left the Hamam to go directly to Atatürk Airport, to pick up my friend Caroline, who decided to take a break from her study abroad experience in the lands of the Count of Toulouse to explore Istanbul with me. She got in pretty late and was fairly exhausted but we went out for a bite to eat and a drink before turning in for the night. Over the next few days, Caroline and I did the entire city. Well, as much as one can do in 3 days — I have told everyone who has ever asked and will continue to tell anyone who ever will ask that a weekend, or even a week, is not enough to time to sufficiently ‘see’ Istanbul… but oh well — starting early and ending late. We saw the Galata Tower, the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Market, Yeni Camii, Hağia Sofia (which was still beautiful, despite being under renovations on the interior once again), Milyon Stone (further excavated than last time), Topkapı Palace, the Blue Mosque, and wore through the soles of our shoes in the process.


Galata Tower at night.


Interior of Hağia Sofia under renovation.


Caroline at the Empress’ Loge in Hağia Sofia.


The Milyon Stone. The last remnants of a triumphal column from which all points in the Roman and Byzantine Empires were measured.

We enjoyed some nargile and çay, and wandered through Gülhane Parkı, went to party at a couple of awesome bars and clubs, and even made it up to Rumeli Hisarustu, my old stomping grounds when I was at Boğaziçi, as well as Rumeli Hisarı itself.



Mantı from Mutfak in Rumeli Hisarustu.


Erol and me in Mutfak.


The epic view from Boğaziçi’s campus.


Rumeli Hisarı on the Bosporus.

After Caroline left on Monday morning I wandered a little bit with Michael before meeting a friend for dinner and running out to my own plane. But despite the frightening nature of what is going on in Turkey, it was a really fun week. I got to be a tourist again, I got to wander the city again. I got to eat some incredible foods that can only be found in Istanbul. And I got to drag a friend around the city for several exhausting days before I moved on to China.


Candied quince with clotted water buffalo cream on top. Incredible.


A selection of foods from Galata Mutfak.


Yeni Camii at sunset in Eminönü.


View from the ferry at Kabataş.

IMG_0275Gezi Parkı at sunset.


İstiklal means “independence” in Turkish. It’s fitting, then, that İstiklal Cd. was the center for all the anti-government protests of the summer, and is of course the center of the police presence in response that persists through today. What was one police van with a water cannon in Taksim Square when I arrived became a half-dozen by the end of the week, and another dozen trucks had parked themselves down the length of İstiklal at night. Riot police stand in formation most nights up and down the street, waiting, machine guns drawn and riot shields ready.


Every shop and restaurant seemed to have a gas mask hanging on a back wall for the employees should something happen. I mentioned to a friend tonight that my parents insisted I bring masks with me for Beijing’s pollution.. he laughed and said, “these are some misplaced priorities. Pollution is nothing like tear gas.”


Day 1.


Day 6. Those are all police vans. Each one holds about 15-20 armed policemen.


I spoke with a few young Turks about their thoughts on the riots, the aftermath, Prime Minister Erdoğan, and Turkish politics in general. The consensus was not positive, or hopeful, and it reflected itself in the demeanor one can sense in the whole of downtown Istanbul. One Turk, a friend of someone who worked at my hostel, told me he no longer wishes to marry or have children, as he cannot imagine raising a family in the country that Turkey is becoming. He spoke fondly of the 15 days of protests earlier this summer, when protesters had control of and barricaded the police out of Gezi Park, Taksim Square, Istiklal Cd., most of Beşiktaş and one of the two bridges that crosses the Bosporus. He spoke much in the same way the rebels at the barricades  in Les Miserable must have felt about their cause. And like Les Mis, the Turkish rebellion fizzled out.


I suggested to my new Turkish friend while a few of us on the roof enjoyed a couple of Cuban cigars that maybe the reason the protest dissipated was a lack of leadership to unify everyone. He insisted that was not the case – his faith was in social media and a Peoples’ revolution. But even he mentioned the need for “another Ataturk,” i.e. someone to lead the people back towards modernity. He enlightened me on a number of policies that Erdoğan and his Justice & Development Party (AKP) has implemented recently that are particularly appalling. I don’t know how much of what he tells me is true or propaganda, but I have reproduced below what I remember from the conversation.

  • Firstly, something I had discovered that night on my own when my friend Caroline (who visited this weekend from her study program in Toulouse, but I’ll get to that in another post) and I tried around midnight to find a couple of beers from a local shop to enjoy on the roof of the hostel with a view of the Golden Horn on our last night in town… only to find that as of two weeks ago, no store could sell beer or liquor after 10pm. The government says it is to protect the youth, but who knows.
  • Erdoğan has been pushing education.. He’s been actively defunding arts programs in favor of increasing religious studies. He has been pushing math and science, but apparently he has said that Turkish people will never be the inventors or innovators, so they should focus on training their citizens to strive for middle management (yea, because that’s a recipe for economic success).
  • While it’s probably hyperbole, he accused Erdoğan’s AKP party of fixing the elections. Apparently there was some suspicious activity in the electronic voting in the Beyoğlu area (which is comprised of, among others, Taksim, Istiklal, Karaköy, Galata, and Cihangir areas) whereby the opposition party was leading on the day of the election by a significant percentage, then an outage in whatever tracking software occurred and when it came back online and the election ended, the AKP had mysteriously closed the gap and passed their opposition handily. I don’t know how much of that is true, but it’s an interesting accusation that flies in the face of one of the things I found most confounding about Turkish politics-  the question of whether it’s right to overthrow a properly elected leader if he is simply pushing his conservative values.
  • Erdoğan has apparently begun to target wealthy citizens who belong to opposition parties, baselessly accusing them of tax evasion and taxing them exorbitant amounts of money. One of the victims of this sort of abuse is the man who owns the hostel itself. Billions of dollars have been collected this way, and many wealthy patrons have reluctantly had to support Erdoğan in order to get the charges dropped against them.
  • Erdoğan has arrested or subdued every leader of the military takeover from the 1980 coup d’etat, and the remaining military command structure is in his pocket. He has also arrested prominent actors and other public figures, who are still in jail for their active participation in the protests earlier this year.
  • Erdoğan and the AKP has apparently been trying to slowly convert Universities across the country to follow more conservative curriculum. One University, Middle East Technical University (ODTÜ), has been particularly resilient. In apparent response, just a few days ago, while protesters of a project to build a road through the campus’ forest preserve were home celebrating the end of Bayram (a holiday that happened while I was in town), bulldozers demolished an estimated 3,000 trees, detaining 14 people who showed up to protest the act, 6 of whom were students.
  • Most of the media is entirely under the control of the AKP. Only one print paper that I found has been carrying the ODTÜ incident, and as best as I can tell it is not pro-student. When the protests were happening, friends of mine had told me that their family elsewhere in the country had no idea what was happening, because even CNN Türkiye was showing a penguin documentary instead of the protests.
  • Erdoğan is not only in the process of trying to change the constitution to allow for a presidential system, presumably with himself as president and with more powers than he currently has, but he is also trying to solidify a roll as leader of a league of Middle East nations that is in the process of forming, solidifying his power in the region as well as domestically.


The following night I had dinner with a good friend from Boğaziçi Üniversitesi before leaving for my flight to China. A couple other things I learned from him:

  • Waiters are now expected to pay a special tax on any cash tips they receive in addition to whatever they would pay anyway.
  • The middle class is suffering greatly, and the people are becoming generally less educated as a result (these two are grouped because the reasoning is that educated middle class Turks are not having kids because it doesn’t make financial sense, while others who are uneducated are having 10 or more kids and trusting in Allah to provide for them, which both pulls them out of the middle class due to the hit their income takes and perpetuates the lack of education. In Turkey you have to pay for primary school through high school, and most universities. The costs for public schools are heavily subsidized through taxation, but not enough to make those taxes cover everything, so there is a marked barrier to entry for poorer citizens. This is a problem that Erdoğan seems to feel in no rush to fix).


We similarly discussed at dinner the need for another Ataturk (Both these friends, by the way, saw my iPhone case, which has a depiction of Ataturk on it, and simply said “thank you,” for it. Ataturk was a lot of things, but today to these young Turks he is hope and possibilites). We talked about how Ataturk, like Erdoğan, tended to force legislation on the people, but unlike Erdoğan, Ataturk’s legislations were designed to create more freedoms, not to take them away.


It’s a scary situation, and while there was no violence in the last week that I was involved in or saw, I passed countless guns drawn and regimented police officers, and the demure condition of the city was evidence of the toll that that has had. Of course, I don’t blame individual police officers for all the psychological trauma.. they can’t all be bad. This guy was a mush for a little kid who ran over to him just a few hours ago. I wish I had used a flash for this one:Image


But what use is İstiklal without true independence? Erdoğan is a politician who is, admittedly, representing the majority of Turks. But he is not doing his duty to protect and serve: to serve the majority and protect, at all costs, the rights of the minority. He is just accomplishing the former.


Either way, Gezi Park still stands (proof below). It is a small and hollow victory, but maybe the protests lasting influence is to have sent a message to the AKP that there is a line, and they are dangerously close to crossing it. Mark Twain once said, “I have never wished a man dead, but I have read many an obituary with great pleasure.” To bastardize and reappropriate that quote, I do not necessarily wish for a revolution in Turkey, but if and when it comes, you can be sure that Gezi Park, Taksim Square, and İstiklal Cadessi will be, as always, at the center, and I look forward to that day with great anticipation. My friend at dinner agreed with my conclusion that Turkey needs a new Ataturk to lead them, and I believe there is someone out there to fill that roll. Turkey just has to find that person who can unite the incredibly diverse group that agrees only in their opposition to the AKP. But to move Turkey forward (with or without Ataturk 2.0), or even to return it to its pre-AKP standing, there will be hard work, and things might get bloody. I just want to see my friends feel confident about their future again, and for them to feel for the first time (since they have grown up under only AKP rule) a sense of true İstiklal.