Midnight Van to Manhattan

Living in New York, it’s easy to get caught up in all the glamour of the greatest city in the universe. The beautiful streets of our city offer us so much- fashion, art, culture, food, people- yet an even more passes by unnoticed with all the extravagant distractions that so easily catch our attention.
We may say hi to the homeless man on our street, toss a quarter in his raggedy Starbucks cup and continue our journey to Whole Foods, by which time he is fully out of our minds and we’re stocking up on organic apples at $13/pound.  We may even make an effort, bring our cherished neighborhood bum a warm blanket in the snow, give her a bottle of water on a particularly hot day, but in the end, they stay there, on the grit-covered sidewalk in the smog of the city, and we push them out of our heads as we continue on with our fabulous lives. 
Every New Yorker has problems:  we missed the 1 train by half a second and our iPhone app tells us the next train won’t arrive for 4 more minutes.  We spent our weekly budget going out on Thursday night and have to live on Hallel cart bagels for six days. We found a cockroach, or worse, a mouse in the kitchen we pay far too much rent for, and the exterminator can’t come for ten more days.  And while so many things may seem like a crisis, there are worse things in life than getting your Manolo stuck in a subway grate. 
This is not to say that all New Yorkers are materialistic, self-absorbed drones.  On the contrary, I find that so many of us are concerned with community issues, with the greater world, with discussing culture and politics and so many issues that would perhaps be left untouched in a city without such magnificent diversity. 
We are thinkers, New Yorkers. And sometimes things happen that make us perceive our world in a different way, adding just another diversion to the daily business of being a city dweller. 
The last Thursday in March I participated in a program called Midnight Run.  The organization coordinates groups of volunteers to prepare meals and collect clothing for the homeless, which will then be distributed by van starting around 10:00 pm. 
I spent the early part of the evening alongside JTS students, assembling sandwiches (tuna, egg salad, cheese) to stuff in paper bags alongside an apple and a cookie.  We sorted through piles of donated clothes, separating men’s from women’s apparel, folding blankets and matching socks. After a hard week, it was nice to relax with my peers, everyone smiley that they were doing something to help the less fortunate, and everyone ready to unwind for the weekend.  It was comforting to be able to methodically label sandwich bags and appreciate my classmate’s terrifyingly accurate impressions of our favorite (read: most entertaining) professors. 
We soon loaded the two enormous vans that we had borrowed from the Midnight Run office for the evening with dinners and blankets and hot chocolate, and set off on the route arranged for us.  While my anxiety about driving surely had me riled up (“Omigod, there’s a bus turning, we’re going to die!” “You can’t drive through Central Park!”  “How do we know who’s drunk?  We don’t.  Get off the road!”) even more excitement was bubbling inside of me as I prepared for what I expected to be a memorable experience. 
Our van full of food!

We pulled up to the first location on the Upper East Side. The vans are unmarked, meaning, the people who need the resources know when and where they will be, so there is no need to promote the organization with any advertisements on the vehicle. We offered a sandwich and a blanket to a man sleeping on the steps of the church and after a few more minutes of waiting, we drove off for our next stop. That’s it? I thought. Do people really need us or are we just doing this program to make ourselves feel good? Slightly disappointed, I sang along to Ke$ha with my car mates as we navigated to the next destination (Madison Avenue is a one-way street, just fyi).

The next few stops were similar. One or two people approached the van, grateful indeed, but I wondered what we would do with over 150 sandwiches at the end of the night.

Passing out clothing from the van.
By the time we reached midtown, however, I was beginning to see how necessary our mission truly was. Men and women approached the van, many of them so visibly cold and hungry I found it difficult to keep a smile on my face. “Have a nice evening, sir,” I would grin as I handed out a dinner much smaller than my own on any given night to someone who had probably not eaten all day. And I was deeply disturbed. How could I wish them well, knowing most of them didn’t have a bed to sleep in, a person nearby to love them, an assurance that they would have anything to eat when they wake up?

I also didn’t know them. I had no idea what their circumstances, what their stories were. Sure, I had a few short details from a college drop out and others I could tell had turned to drugs for one reason or another, but how could I so deeply empathize with people I knew so little about?

Sitting pretzel-style in the trunk of the van passing out sandwiches, my velvet-gloved hands numb and my entire body shaking from the cold, I couldn’t even begin to imagine what it would be like to live on the street. I have my needs: warm food, a different pair of shoes for every day of the week, nail polish, toilet paper. How could anybody do without this?

Tyra once did an episode of her show in which she lived as a homeless person for 24 hours. She wore a bandana over her weave, bathed herself with a bar of soap in a public restroom, and slept on the street while someone watched over her so she wouldn’t be mugged/raped/harassed for autographs. During the interview segment she was brought to tears multiple times, and I remember being to interested that she would willingly do this, so intrigued in the way she was able to portray homelessness. But in the end, she was still a celebrity, had a multimillion-dollar apartment and assistants and career to return to, while her homeless companions had no hope of ever achieving any of this.

By the time we arrived at our last stop, I could see we were absolutely making an impact.  Sure, it was only one more meal, one extra hat or sweater or pair of shoes, but it was something.  And yes, there was definitely more we could be doing. I worry that the people with whom we interacted never have the chance to engage in a life-changing novel, to walk through New York for aesthetic value not just to find a place to nap, to build lifelong friendships.  Though we can’t hope to improve the world with any singular project, every little bit helps. Recognizing that I am privileged, that I have to opportunity to help the world and actively want to do so is the most important thing I can take away from projects like these. 
And while I cannot say my life has changed since this incredible evening, I still walk past homeless people asking for money, I’ve been guilty of throwing away meals I cannot finish, I know that I see the city differently.  On my way to Bloomingdale’s last weekend I walked past the first corner at which we handed out our first sandwich, and I paused to reflect on it. As Tory Burch flats and Prada bags swished by me in one of New York’s wealthiest neighborhoods, I knew that there was so much unseen suffering in this same location. In fear of sounding self-righteous, I told my shopping friend the amazing event that had taken place at this intersection, passing on the awareness and hopefully promoting further discussions that will lead to progress and absolutely make New York the greatest city in the universe. 
Cold but satisfied with our Midnight Run.

Journey to the Center of the Earth

Travel is a funny thing.  You go somewhere, snap a few photos, eat some food, and take off.  Maybe you return to your destination another time, ensure your memories were as fond as they are in your mind; maybe you’re satisfied with just posting your vacation pics to Facebook/Twitter/Google; or maybe you even write about your experience for the world to see.  But that’s it.  It’s over.  It’s something to talk about at social gatherings and perhaps a way to collect trinkets for your desk, but the few days you spend abroad/a few miles from home/returning to your native country, and suddenly you’re back in real life.

On the Equator!

This past winter break I traveled. A lot.  I spent the first ten days in Puerto Rico, where I learned that even Taco Bell, Subway, Pizza Hut, and Burger King dominate this semi-exotic location, that Puerto Rican Spanish is unlike any other dialect in the world, and one should appreciate the sun on a beach vacation, as reading trashy novels on your kindle inside the hotel lobby just doesn’t offer the same experience as lying on the precious sand would.  I also learned how rum is made, perhaps a valuable skill for my future career as a pirate. 
New Year’s eve was spent with some of my precious Culties, sipping cider, ecstatically belting karaoke, and staying up into the wee hours of the morning reminiscing on the past 20 years of our lives together.  I enjoyed New Year’s brunch with my grandparents and before I knew it I was off again on a flight to JFK.
Culties bringing in the New Year.

From JFK I departed to Guayaquil, Ecuador, accompanied by a lovely group of twenty-three other women selected to participate in the international women’s leadership trip in which I was about to embark.  We arrived in Quito twelve hours after leaving New York, shocked by the free open bar on the plane to enhance the joys of watching one terrible Jenifer Aniston movie after another, and even more stunned by the insanely low food prices at the airport.  I kid you not: Cheap food- at an airport!  We knew we were in for something special. 
Planting trees in the Paramo, an extraterrestrial hot spot.
We arrived at the Hacienda Picalqui just after lunchtime.  We were served a feast of fresh tomato soup with popcorn to toss in, hot rice with vegetables, fresh salad, and pineapple juice.  For the ten days we stayed there, the three women in the kitchen, assisted by Gabriel, the toddler constantly stealing an enormous bread knife, causing a threat to the knees of our beloved chefs, never failed to cook us a delicious meal. We were constantly overwhelmed by the abundance of delicious vegetable soups, fresh breads, a little too much rice and potatoes, and even pasta!
Well-fed ladies exploring Ecuador... 
Our first full day on the hacienda was spent in the fields, pulling weeds from carrot, radish, onion, potato, and various other crops.  City girls who only had one definition of ho learned what it meant to de-weed columns upon columns of dirt (note my highly technical terms), to discover egg sacks from worms and spiders, and compost the leftovers from our labors.
Hard at work!
Throughout the week, we toured local organic farms, learning the ease with which these Ecuadorians create sustainability in their communities and reinforcing the ways in which factory farming is so detrimental to our capitalist society.  While I’ve been on eating sprees before, usually after reading a Michael Pollanbook, I finally saw- and felt- what it meant to live organically, and I vowed to eat more organic foods back in New York, a promise I’m still maintaining, although the noticeable price difference remains evident in my bank account…
Recovering after a steep hike!
Every moment in Ecuador proved equally challenging and inspirational.  We worked in the fields, met with female leaders throughout the province, visited Plaza de Ponchos, and hiked incredibly long distances at unimaginably high altitudes.  We played with children in schools, drank tin cups of aguardiente (fermented beverage made from agave, supposedly a drink of the Gods although it tastes more like dirty dish water) offered to us, and graciously accepted plates of food prepared by locals, never wasting even a kernel of corn, as we saw the intense labor necessary into producing each and every crop.
Two ears of corn, two potatoes, cheese... just a snack, right?
A girl at an infant center we visited.
Maria, a woman who had once worked in the rose plantations and went on to create a co-op for women affected by the damages caused by this industry, stood out to me.  Her eyes filled with tears as she explained that she missed the childhood of her two kids, as she worked from daybreak to well after midnight, and even longer before American celebrations like Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day.  The workers suffer from horrible health as they inhale the pesticides used in the plantations and even have dark stained mouths from the toxins, preventing them from finding better work elsewhere due to discrimination.  If the workers protest or demand better conditions, they get fired, as someone else will always be waiting for work for the unfairly low wages.  I sat there listening, incredulous at who could possibly be so greedy as to force these people into such horrendous lifestyles.  And while I have been deterred from buying roses ever again- unless they’re organic!- our team is diligently working on solutions for this problem, starting first and foremost by sharing what we witnessed in South America.
Maria, far right, telling her story.
Knitted roses, a safe alternative!

Our service trip was interrupted for a two-day vacation to Intag, where we bathed in hot springs, loaded up on sixty-cent ice cream cones, and drove through treacherous mudslides, terrified that we would never see the comfort of the hacienda again.  Our last day in Intag, we took a hike past the longest Zipline in South America, and learned that for a mere five dollars, we could enjoy the experience of a lifetime.  It seemed a little risky.  It also seemed kind of awesome.  I’ve been ziplining before, in Puerto Vallarta, but it was much more expensive and seemed much less dangerous.  And while I was slightly terrified to fly hundreds of feet above a deathly river- under no circumstance were we allowed to even touch the river behind our cabins due to the undertow- I was more terrified at missing out on the experience.  For fifty seconds, I zipped through the air, taking in the breathtaking sights surrounding me, and elating in the experience of freedom.  And finally on the other side I realized that perhaps FDR really knew what he was talking about, and by embracing my fear, not running away from it, I actually found so much happiness. 
I could go on and on about the lessons and memorable experiences from Ecuador.  And while they may certainly pop up here again, I’ll keep it short.  Well, as short as I can make this.  Journaling in Ecuador made me realize that the work I did, the sights I saw, the people with whom I interacted would not be forgotten, that I had a permanent memory of my impressions and my inspirations, and while I remain clueless as to when I will return to South America, if ever again, I can understand how much I gained from my ten days there in January, and how much I can use these experiences to better connect with the world around me.
Stopping for a snack of bizcochos and dulce de leche.