Jessica Weiss

I'm a North American freelance writer in Buenos Aires. This is my blog.

Colombia Dispatch #1

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It’s been a month since I left Buenos Aires and landed at Bogotá’s El Dorado airport, for the start of a new chapter. I’m feeling acclimated and inspired here in the Colombian capital, and eager to begin telling new stories. So far, it’s an interesting and vibrant country, full of history and rich culture, generous people and a lot of tasty delicacies.

After 30 years living at low altitude, I’m really enjoying the mountains (we’re at 8,612 ft!!). They’re on sight from every vantage point in Bogotá, towering above the urban density. Colombia is a country of huge biodiversity — first in the world in the number of flowering plants, second in birds, and sixth in mammals. My garden — in the middle of Bogotá — has fruit trees and a singing bird. And fresh (and oftentimes exotic) juice comes with every single meal.

My Bogotá neighborhood, La Soledad.

My Bogotá neighborhood, La Soledad.

There’s so much to see and do — from mountains to coast to jungle. So far, I’ve twice left Bogota. Last weekend, I visited Villa de Leyva, one of Colombia’s most beautiful colonial villages. (The Spanish arrived here in 1499 and initiated a period of conquest and colonization, creating the Viceroyalty of New Granada, corresponding to modern Colombia, Ecuador, Panama and Venezuela.) In another colonial village just 75 km from Bogota, called Guatavita, I learned the story of El Dorado, or “The Golden One.” As the legend goes, El Dorado was a native Musica tribe leader who walked into Lake Guatavita covered in gold dust and was followed by worshipers throwing gold jewelry and other gold objects into the water. Not surprisingly, this motivated Spanish conquistadors, as well as many other people from around the world, to search for the gold treasure in the lake, even cutting a mountain in half in an attempt to drain the lake.

Many people have asked if I’m safe, which speaks to the country’s infamous recent past. It’s very complex, and I’ve got a lot to learn, but it’s clear that the conflict is hugely important to every aspect of life in Colombia. After all, it claimed 222,000 lives between 1958 and 2013, mostly civilians, according to a study by Colombia’s National Centre for Historical Memory. And some 3 million people have been internally displaced by the fighting.

From what I’ve gathered, that Colombia — of drug cartels and armed conflict — has largely disappeared. According to the well-known travel guide Lonely Planet: “Colombia’s back. After decades of civil conflict, Colombia is now safe to visit and travelers are discovering what they’ve been missing.” (I’ve got a nice futon with your name on it!)

(Oh, in case you’re interested in cosmetic or other types of surgery, Colombia is also a growing destination for medical tourism. Notably, I’m quite intrigued by the whole fake butts thing here.)

In addition to the peace talks in Havana, I’ve been following two big stories: The leftist Mayor, Gustavo Petro, was recently ousted, exposing deep societal divides. And a strong wave of drought in the central eastern department of Casanare — which has been blamed on climate change and oil companies — has caused death by dehydration of about 20,000 animals.

I plan to share more as I learn and experience it. And I’ll post my articles and photos here as well. Thanks for following along.

Written by Jessica

April 2nd, 2014 at 12:25 pm

Christmas Explodes in Buenos Aires

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Buenos Aires, 12 a.m., December 25, 86° F. The city explodes: Fireworks boom and pop; lights flash, sparkle and fade away; the city is united in spirited cacophony. Here’s a glimpse from my roof.

Buenos Aires, medianoche, 25 de diciembre, 30° C. La ciudad explota: Pólvora retumba; luces destellan y se desvanecen; la ciudad se une en un mismo espíritu. Aquí un vistazo desde la terraza de mi casa.

Written by Jessica

December 26th, 2013 at 11:05 am

Life lessons from living abroad

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Two years ago!

Two years ago today I arrived to Buenos Aires after an all-night flight. I had two suitcases and a backpack, and a strong desire to find a greater sense of purpose and understanding in my life. I didn’t have a friend in town, nor any idea what I was going to do with my time, nor much money. As you can imagine, these have been challenging times. But they have been the richest and most exciting two years of my young life, full of lessons I will strive always to cherish and abide by. To mark this day in some way, and because people are always asking me about life abroad, I decided to make a list of some of the most significant things I’ve learned in these past 730 days living as an expat. This is not a comprehensive list. I would love to hear your thoughts or any lessons you’ve learned from living abroad.

What I have learned and/or confirmed while living abroad, in no specific order:

  • We are adaptable. Even the strangest and most mind-boggling realities can become normal.
  • In the grand scheme of things, I am small. Really, really small.
  • It’s gracious and good to give up your bus/subway seat to pregnant women and older people.
  • It’s perfectly wonderful (and encouraged in some societies) to have an afternoon beer or glass of wine in the middle of the workweek every now and again.
  • Peanut butter is very important. Very.
  • The world around us is full of kind-hearted people who want to help others.
  • Be loose with expectations or just get rid of them all together.
  • I don’t need a lot of stuff.
  • Life is full of struggle and everyone’s fighting some sort of battle out there. Be kind.
  • I am a product of where I have lived. In spite of concerted efforts to undo certain “American” parts of myself, the country where I spent most of my young years formed large and unflinching parts of my being and my outlook on things.
  • We have billions of choices.
  • One country is not more exceptional than any other.
  • Language is very important to me and communication is powerful. It’s good to use words that fall softly and contribute positively. Speaking in my non-native language has shown me the importance of thinking before I speak.
  • There is usually a way to crawl out of bad situations.
  • If you miss the bus or train, another one is probably going to come soon, or eventually.
  • Family is the unbreakable, unexplainable warm blanket of life.
  • Never, ever underestimate the power of a group of amazing women (didn’t someone already say that?). Especially when far from home, a tight-knit, empowering group of lady friends is richer and more potent than endless amounts of books, chocolate ice cream, therapy and hugs. I am forever grateful to mine.
  • Skype is awesome, even when it cuts out. Love you Skype!

Thanks to the countless people who have supported me on this journey.

<3 Jessica

Written by Jessica

November 7th, 2013 at 10:26 am

Learning to write all over again

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It’s nearing two years that I’ve lived in Argentina. So that’s like, err, 10,000 waking hours that I’ve been immersed in the Spanish language.

I’ll admit it, I started off slow. I sought out other expats and avoided situations where I’d be forced to speak a lot. But as the months went by, I fought against my ego and finally allowed an unfamiliar level of verbal ability to triumph over my sense of control and intelligence. I dove in and spoke. I made crucial mistakes and couldn’t crack a joke for my life. But I kept speaking and I haven’t stopped. Nowadays, when someone touts my Spanish abilities, instead of laughing I can actually often accept the compliment and feel really, truly proud.

Funny enough, in these two years, I’ve also spent a considerable amount of time honing my written English. With more time and inspiration, I’ve published articles and blogs and filled more journals than I can count. I’m more addicted to writing than I was before I moved here.

Screen Shot 2013-09-25 at 4.54.37 PMBut lately, as I sit down to craft a piece of writing in English, I find myself feeling oddly guilty. After spending all this time and effort becoming fluent in Spanish, I’m itching to write [more than an email] in Spanish. It’s time. One might think that after crossing the speaking hump, the writing would come easy. But I fear it’s not so simple.

I think I’m going to have to learn to write all over again. And how does a writer do that?

You see, it took me awhile to realize that English and Spanish are very, very different. I know that may sound obvious, but I was always told by Spanish teachers and speakers that learning Spanish is easy because it’s “so much like English.” Sure, the languages share many of the same letters and sounds and the words that are similar between Spanish and English all have Latin origins.

But my Spanish clicked the moment I stopped translating from English — when I realized that changing English thoughts into Spanish thoughts isn’t about the words. It’s about the meaning and desired effect. I often say now that to translate a sentence into Spanish, I have to throw the English sentence up into the air, change all the words and structure and emphasis around, and bring it back down in a completely different form and order. For this reason, Google Translate often doesn’t work beyond simple word translations.

As a journalism student, I learned to dominate English by getting to the point quick and stripping away all excess in my writing. English is precise, period. But when I read Spanish news articles, it can take me paragraphs and lots of reading between the lines to grasp the very point of an article. (For you journalists: The nut graf doesn’t exist here.) And that’s not totally a stylistic thing — it’s cultural. Spanish is full of exuberant verbal excess. Spanish feels like music, the way it rolls and curves around, often circling around a fact or a point and making you guess. It’s for that reason, I think, that I can feel comfortable saying something incredibly cheesy in Spanish that I would likely not say in English. It may even come out sounding poetic.

It took a lot of surrender but my Spanish-speaking self has had to let the words and the structure flow out. I have to allow myself to think inside of the language.

Let’s see if I can make it work when it’s written down. Step 1: I think I’ll have to indulgently unlearn what my favorite writing professor told me and start loving adverbs again (sorry, Howard).

Here, native Spanish-speaker Isabel Allende describes her experience learning to write in English, the reverse:

I try to write beautifully, but accessibly. In the romance languages, Spanish, French, Italian, there’s a flowery way of saying things that does not exist in English. My husband says he can always tell when he gets a letter in Spanish: the envelope is heavy. In English a letter is a paragraph. You go straight to the point. In Spanish that’s impolite. Reading in English, living in English, has taught me to make language as beautiful as possible, but precise. Excessive adjectives, excessive description — skip it, it’s unnecessary. Speaking English has made my writing less cluttered. I try to read House of the Spirits now, and I can’t. Oh my God, so many adjectives! Why? Just use one good noun instead of three adjectives.

Image: Courtesy of Flickr user photosteve101 under a Creative Commons license.

Written by Jessica

September 25th, 2013 at 5:24 pm

Next Time

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by Joyce Sutphen

I’ll know the names of all of the birds
and flowers, and not only that, I’ll
tell you the name of the piano player
I’m hearing right now on the kitchen
radio, but I won’t be in the kitchen,

I’ll be walking a street in
New York or London, about
to enter a coffee shop where people
are reading or working on their
laptops. They’ll look up and smile.

Next time I won’t waste my heart
on anger; I won’t care about
being right. I’ll be willing to be
wrong about everything and to
concentrate on giving myself away.

Next time, I’ll rush up to people I love,
look into their eyes, and kiss them, quick.
I’ll give everyone a poem I didn’t write,
one specially chosen for that person.
They’ll hold it up and see a new
world. We’ll sing the morning in,

and I will keep in touch with friends,
writing long letters when I wake from
a dream where they appear on the
Orient Express. “Meet me in Istanbul,”
I’ll say, and they will.

Written by Jessica

August 5th, 2013 at 12:50 pm

Posted in inspiration

Faith & Conservation (video)

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At World Youth Day 2013, I asked youth from the U.S. if their Catholic faith inspires them to conserve the environment. Here’s what they said:

Written by Jessica

July 27th, 2013 at 8:47 pm

At World Youth Day gathering in Brazil, a vision of sustainability for the Amazon

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On the occasion of the Pope’s visit, I am in Rio de Janeiro reporting on the link between faith and conservation for the World Wildlife Fund. See this story on the WWF website here.

WWF has called on young people of faith and social leaders from Brazil and around the world to propel forward a vision of sustainability for the endangered Amazon region.

Speaking before hundreds of Catholic youth attending World Youth Day events, Dekila Chungyalpa, director of WWF’s Sacred Earth program, said the creatures, ecosystems and ecological functions of the world’s most biodiverse region are “in peril.”

WWF is working with faith leaders to try to change that current calamity course. Pope Francis, in Brazil on his first international trip, has made a strong call for sustainable development, providing environmentalists with what Chungyalpa calls a new sense of hope.

Screen Shot 2013-07-25 at 11.55.32 AM

One in ten species known on earth lives in the Amazon

“The Pope’s respect for nature and his strong call for sustainable development paint an optimistic picture for the future,” Chungyalpa said. “I hope he will motivate youth here in Brazil to fight to save the Amazon.”

WWF is the only major U.S. environmental organization working directly to engage diverse religious leaders in the conservation fight. The Sacred Earth program works with a range of faith groups, including Christian congregations that seek to become better stewards of Creation, Buddhist monasteries that practice compassion toward the Earth as part of their Bodhisattva vow, and Muslim imams who see the protection of nature as a trust from Allah.

In collaboration with WWF, the Catholic Church in Brazil is working to promote environmental protection of the Amazon.

Claudio Maretti, leader of the WWF Living Amazon Initiative, said the stakes couldn’t be higher.

“If we don’t take care of this sacred region we’re not only going to suffer disasters like floods,” Maretti said, “but we’re also going to prevent youth from knowing what nature is and benefitting from its services.”

Yesterday’s panel was the only event at the six-day World Youth Day focusing on faith and the environment.

Laécio Vieira of Pastoral Da Juventude Rural (Pastoral Rural Youth) told youth that protecting the earth is also a question of human rights. He urged attendees to question and stand up to companies that seek to make a profit by using and degrading the environment.

“We need to be something more than just an excuse for the Pope to visit Brazil,” Vieira said. “This should be a call upon youth, regardless of what religion they are, to foster better nature, housing and healthy food.”

Speakers said today’s youth, with so much technology and innovation at their fingertips, can redesign what development means, striving to honor the human relationship with the environment, and to make that future sustainable.

Chungyalpa said we have been offered two different visions of the future. One is filled with calamity and chaos, which is the path we are on today. The other is one of balance, where we live in harmony with nature and with each other.

Achieving the latter will “require a lot of dedication, compassion and collaboration,” she said. In short, “it requires faith.”

Written by Jessica

July 25th, 2013 at 12:00 pm

Measuring the impact of TOMS shoes

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Screen Shot 2013-07-14 at 9.32.41 PMBack in 2008, I was among the first of my friends in Washington, DC, to purchase a pair of TOMS shoes. They were unlike anything I’d ever seen or imagined wearing, but I found them kinda cute. And I was told that my purchase — of a pair of the simple cloth shoes, called “alpargatas” — would result in a pair being gifted to a child in need. I was sold.

Since I bought those gray alpargatas back in 2008, the popularity of TOMS has skyrocketed in the U.S. market. Especially in urban areas, it seems TOMS are everywhere you look. And nowadays, purchasers have options far beyond the humble alpargata. On a recent trip to New York City, I was told that black TOMS strappy wedges (retail price: $74) were sold out across the city. Literally, sold out.

TOMS now brings in around $250 million in sales. It’s fair to assume that many TOMS wearers have been at least partially motivated by the company’s admirable mission: to match every pair of TOMS purchased with a new pair given to a child in need (a model they call “One for One”). TOMS says the shoes allow children to go to school and help fight disease, and that they change lives. Since its founding in 2006, TOMS has given more than 2 million pairs of shoes to children living in poverty in more than 51 countries.

And as it’s grown, the company has also come under increased scrutiny. People are questioning the one-for-one model. They’re criticizing TOMS for producing their shoes in China, generating unnecessary waste and taking jobs away from local cobblers. And they’re demanding to know how effective shoe “giving” has actually been. Does it really payoff for the people it aims to help?

To help clear up some of these questions, the very rad Fast Company Magazine recently published an in-depth profile of the company and its founder, Blake Mycoskie. Back in April, the magazine called me and asked me to investigate the impact of TOMS shoe deliveries in Northern Argentina, to be included as part of the piece. (TOMS was actually inspired by a trip Mycoskie took to Argentina in 2006, where he saw children walking without shoes). So a few months ago, I traveled to Misiones, Argentina, on the border with Brazil, to investigate the impact of some of the earliest TOMS shoe deliveries. I visited two small pueblos and their surrounding villages, and asked dozens of people about their memories of the TOMS shoe deliveries and the shoes they received.

I encourage you to read the piece and come to your own conclusions about the company and its business model. I’m curious to hear your thoughts.

“TOMS Sets Out To Sell a Lifestyle, Not Just Shoes” online and in the July/August 2013 issue of Fast Company Magazine.

Written by Jessica

July 14th, 2013 at 9:34 pm

Posted in journalism,Travel

On grandparent visits and airport goodbyes

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When I was eight-years-old, I decided I wanted to go visit my Grandma and Grandpa all by myself — on a plane. I was to fly from Maryland to West Palm Beach, Florida, to spend two weeks of my summer break getting spoiled and tan and swimming until my fingers turned into raisins.

When the day arrived, my mom and dad walked me to the airport gate, and introduced me to the stewardess who I was told would take special care of me during the flight. She gave me crayons and paper and smiled big as she told me I was very brave to fly all by myself.

Next she placed a big circular sticker on the left side of my chest, on my t-shirt. The sticker featured just three letters, written in black marker: P, B and I.

As my mom and dad looked on, the stewardess asked if I knew what PBI meant.

As my mom tells it now, I cocked my head to the side and looked up, thinking hard about the tricky question.

PBI?

After a few minutes, I had it. I knew what PBI meant and I was ready to answer.

“Yes, I know,” I said proudly. “Person by itself?”

And oh how they laughed.

“Good answer,” my mom finally managed to say.

“It means Palm Beach International,” the stewardess responded. “The airport! We give it to you in case you forget where you’re going.”

Yesterday, 22 years after that solo PBI trip, my mom and dad and I brought my 88-year-old grandmother to the same Maryland airport, so she could fly back home to PBI. A little over a week earlier, we had brought her to Maryland for her first trip since my grandfather’s death.

It was a beautiful week. A challenging week. A week of good food, reunions and hours of stories. We went to the theatre and on walks to the ice cream shop. We got cozy on the couch together at night. We talked about the aches and pains and heaviness of life’s endings.

Yesterday at the airport we walked her through security, kissed her wrinkled skin, and let her stain our cheeks with her famous lipstick kisses. To slow her tears, we reminisced about what fun we’d had.

When it was time to go, we watched for as long as we could as they wheeled her away towards her plane. We smiled lovingly.

And we waved bye, to our person by itself.

Written by Jessica

June 25th, 2013 at 12:51 pm

Posted in Random musings

Morning Pages.

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SONY DSCThis morning, I wrote. Three longhand, scribbled pages with my favorite pen. I was tired and my to-do list glared, but still I sat and moved my hand furiously across the page.

I’ve been doing this for over a year, my “Morning Pages.” Some days it’s boring and three pages feels like an eternity and I end up writing lalalala orI don’t know what to write today repeatedly in huge letters, or making grocery lists.

Other days, it is poetry.

I’ve learned that the most inspired pages are no less and no more important than those filled with the nonsensical or superficial. I’ve filled six journals so far.

This is my ritual.

Morning after morning, I come back, to clear out the clutter, and to provoke freedom, creativity and forward motion.

What fills the pages is what is alive first, before I wash the sleep off my face. Before thinking too hard or answering emails. Or maybe it’s about dreams. Or what’s left over from yesterday. Or what may come later in the day. Whatever it is that comes out is real, clear and often quite vulnerable.

They are a space to admit and obsess. To laugh or cry or sing along to. To engage with the morning’s weather, or the bug that won’t leave you alone. To affirm what you already know.

Maybe one day your whole first page will feel inauthentic. But at the top of page two, maybe you will get brave and ask yourself what you’re hiding. You’ve decided you don’t want to waste these precious pages for another instant. And then maybe you’ll proceed to respond, maybe even angrily, shouting ink on paper what lay at the depths of your soul and freeing yourself from holding it inside any longer. That day will be good.

When things get rough, you’ll whine and moan into the page, day after day, the same story. Until one day you realize you’ve somehow begun writing about something entirely different.

You can do it, I tell you! I’ve written my morning pages on a plane. On my balcony. On a bus. In a village, to the sound of a rooster waking the community. In bed, sick. In a busy downtown cafe. Even at a lover’s house.

If you miss a day, or two, or a week, it won’t really matter. You’ll come back, because you will miss the sacredness of the pages. You’ll have to be flexible, and do the occasional Evening or Bedtime Pages. Just get into the routine. Buy a cheap journal covered in cartoons or flowers or superheroes, or a beautiful one that leaves glitter on your hands. Commit to put your pen to paper — or if you don’t have one, voice to recorder or fingers to keyboard — and let the words fall out of you. I promise you won’t regret it.

***

This post first appeared on Rebelle Society.

Written by Jessica

June 9th, 2013 at 11:48 am

Posted in inspiration