Clouds

If I Die

Let me make this clear, NO this is NOT a cry for help. I just like planning. That includes talking about and planning for my inevitable trip to that great cat cafe in the sky (hey, you have your version of heaven, let me have mine!).

If you’re tasked with planning my funeral, that sucks. It must be like planning a wedding but worse because of all the sad and awful. Sorry you got stuck with the short end of the stick, m’dear. Here, this should make it easier(ish) for you. I present you with my LAST Buzzfeed article, How to Plan My Funeral in 13 Easy Steps:

  1. No one is allowed to wear black. (Well, my mom can wear whatever she wants because she definitely took one for the team popping me out. But, other than that, no exceptions!) My peeps should wear only bright colors or the weirdest clothes (feather boas, fake fur, tutus). Think Burning Man meets Candy Land. Sequins are also very much appreciated.
  2. Please play ’80s and/or ’90s music. If anyone even THINKS about a pipe organ, I’ll know, and I’ll haunt them.
  3. Y’all are welcome to tell stories about how great I was (or wasn’t. I don’t know what old me is all about, but I’m sure she can be a jerkface sometimes!) but there’s no pressure. Short and sweet is just fine.
  4. Everyone gets a goody bag upon leaving. It will include Journeys Greatest Hits and a unicycle (or something quirky like a taxidermy kit). You can decide.
  5. There should be condoms with funny slogans on them for free in the bathroom. I hope this will scandalize half the attendees and encourage the other half to have safe sex.
  6. I don’t plan on having an open bar at my wedding, but y’all, seriously, if I’m dead, please feel free to use my money to get plastered at my funeral. All I ask is that everyone takes Uber home and that drinks include: Dark and Stormies, Amaretto Sours, Russian Mules and Piña Coladas. There must also be a frozen margarita machine. That last one is non-negotiable.
  7. There should also be cake. REALLY GOOD CAKE. And vegan and gluten-free options. Be considerate, funeral planner!
  8. Someone has to give a PSA about menstrual cups, IUDs, male birth control (because that shit should be a THING by the time I die!) and the benefits of going braless. If you’d like to throw in some talk about how to be a good ally/not a sexist asshole, that’d be cool, too.
  9. I really don’t want a tombstone ’cause I’d like my organs to go to people in need and my body to be donated to SCIENCE! But, if it’ll make the family happy, please turn the tombstone into a stone bench and table. I’m going for a picnic table vibe. And you must picnic on said table. Preferably on Dia de Los Muertos. Please have something odd and unsettling inscribed on the table along with my name, date of birth/death. If it turns out I can’t haunt people specifically, I want the table to do the job en masse.
  10. No flowers. My Significant Other is allergic, and the poor guy is going to be having a rough go of it anyway without having to deal with coughing and sneezing. Instead of all that, everyone should donate money to Planned Parenthood or (here’s looking at you, conservative family members) the ACLU. C’mon, I’m dead, just do me this last kindness, yeah? It won’t KILL you! (Just a little gallows humor from the grave.)
  11. My obituary should be exceptionally well written considering I have about a billion writer friends so NO PRESSURE. Please make sure all or at least some of it is in haiku format. Thanks.
  12. To end the funeral, everyone must sing Bohemian Rhapsody with as much emotion as possible, preferably out of key.
  13. And, finally, if you wanted to rent a dinosaur bouncy house and offer childcare for funeral attendees, I’ll put in a good word for you with whomever is in charge of this whole “life” thing. I know all of you, and y’all could use the bump in karma points! Think about it.

xoxoM

Photo Credit: Billy Huynh

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Computer

The Do’s and Don’ts of Starting a Passion Project

My passion project is DiverseSources.org, a database of underrepresented experts in science, health and the environment that addresses the lack of diverse perspectives cited in news articles. The database is searchable by expertise, language, location, time zone and other fields to help journalists more easily find potential sources.

I co-founded Diverse Sources so I could work with news organizations to increase the diversity in their sourcing. I provide training and consulting to reporters so they can find more relevant stories and better report those stories.

But all of this didn’t happen overnight. It’s taken years of preparation and hard work to get this far. That’s because passion projects are a lot of work. If you’ve got a passion project in mind but just don’t know how to get going, here are my tips:

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How to Host a Friend Speed Dating Event

Friendship is hard. Once you’re out of the friendship-incubator that is college, it’s tough to meet new people outside your own little bubble. I’m here to help! Friend speed dating is for awesome women who are interested in platonic friendships with other, similarly badass, ladies! It’s a speed-dating format without any of the awkwardness. I’ll be serving up huge helpings of coffee, tea, cookies, doughnuts*—and friendship!

How To

As I planned this event, I relied heavily upon this librarian’s site. She had a GREAT explanation of how the event should flow, and it was really helpful as I planned my own meetup. I made some alterations, like each “couple” got to talk for five minutes. In retrospect, if I’d had a smaller group (we had 16), it would’ve been great to let people chat for even longer!

I printed and cut out groups of ice breaker questions and placed one chunk of questions in front of each seat. I found the questions here and here.

I used yellow sticky notes with arrows to direct people on where to go after their time was up. Then I printed out this star and this arrow for the trickier moves. (See the librarians site above for details on movements!) Overall, the sticky notes and the arrows didn’t help so it’s best if you stand by at the end of each chat to direct people until they get the hang of it.

In case of an odd number of people, I had a “craft station” where folks could either draw or write letters. We ended up not using it. I just filled in to make it an even number until the latecomers showed up. (Note: If you do decide to fill in, make sure you rotate like everyone else! I didn’t rotate for a couple rounds, and it made things a little tricky toward the end of the meetup!)

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cape town, table mountain, south africa

Top Things to Do in South Africa

This is the list I used when planning my trip to South Africa. Scroll through it and see what jumps out at you. Enjoy your trip, and ping me with any questions!

Johannesburg 

Two days is plenty of time to see all that Joburg has to offer. Tack on an extra day to do quirkier trips and explore the city. Uber is the best (and cheapest) way to get around if you’re new to the city and unaware of its good/bad areas, especially since there aren’t that many sidewalks for walking. Make sure your cell phone works overseas without crazy fees because there’s very little free wifi in this city!

  • Soweto
    • “For real insight into post-apartheid South Africa – a visit to the township of Soweto, home to an estimated 3.5 million people – you need to hire a guide. Besides providing a glimpse into how millions of black South Africans live today, Soweto is historically fascinating. Nobel Peace Prize-winners Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu both lived on tree-lined Vilakazi Street and Mandela’s former home is open to visitors. Left as it once was, Winnie’s military boots stand next to a bed with a jackal-skin throw, and old photos line the walls. Just down the road, the Hector Pieterson Memorial Museum, named after the 13-year-old whose murder by police sparked an uprising in 1976, is another hard-hitting reminder of the horrors of apartheid.” –Condé Nast Traveller
    • The guided tour of Mandela’s home is simply a memorized speech of significant dates. It’s interesting, but don’t expect it to take more than 20 minutes at the maximum.
    • The Hector Pieterson Memorial Museum was fantastic. It did a great job of explaining the uprising and its aftermath. All the feels.
    • I was skeptical of paying $70 to take a tour of Soweto, especially when I’d been told that it’s fine to walk around in the daytime. But I’m really glad we went with Township Travel (Siphiwe Kumalo info@township-travel.co.za sowetour98@gmail.com). The tour offers perspectives, not only from the tour guide, but from residents in their early 20s who take you around their neighborhood and answer all your questions. I highly recommend it!

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How to Get Into (and Around) Lima From the Airport

Don’t rely on your hostel/hotel’s transportation! They’ll overcharge you, and getting a taxi at the airport is simple.

Take Green Taxi from the airport to your destination. It’s 50 soles (Peruvian currency) or $20.

Fifty soles is the better deal. You can exchange some money at the airport, and then exchange money on the street later where you’ll get a MUCH better rate. (NOTE: Most people on the route to Machu Picchu accept cash only!)

To get back to the airport, use a service called EasyTaxi. Download it to your phone, type in your location, and a safe cab will pick you up within 5 minutes. Getting around Lima shouldn’t cost you more than 20 soles (~$6). The app even tells you how much the fares are beforehand so there’s not confusion, bargaining or cheating!

The app gives you the option to connect your credit card, but just pay in soles for everything. Also note that cabbies rarely have exact change so try and carry as many coins as possible.

You can also use EasyTaxi to get around Lima and Cusco. You should avoid using local cabs because it’s oh-so common to get robbed in a cab.

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How to Talk Your Way Out of Anything: Part I

Nothing is logical in Peru.

The U.S. has its problems, of course, but I like to think it’s governed by a system that’s fairly rational. Businesses usually operate 9-5, Monday through Friday. The water is safe to drink; the food safe to eat. The grocery store will sell you food, and the post office will take your letters. There’s a sense of order, place and time.

South Americans aren’t governed by such rules or, rather, any rules at all.

Everything about living here is complicated. Every. little. thing. Want to mail a letter? The post office may have moved down the block without notice. The landlady says she’ll get here at 3:30 p.m.? Don’t be naive—she won’t show till tomorrow evening. Need directions to the bus station? People will make up fake routes. Want to buy some chicken from the store? The cashier doesn’t know the cost so you leave empty handed.

It’s amazing how much time I’ve spent thinking/worrying/raging over simple, everyday things. To succeed in Peru, in South America, you have to drop all notions of logic—and start playing the game yourself.

I’ve noticed that the people here are masters at talking their way out of anything. After nine months in Peru, the young padawan has graduated, and I’ve come up with a list of my own tricks. Enjoy.

Smile Like a Crazy Person

If you smile REALLY big and speak in a high-pitched voice that bubbles and gushes every third sentence, you can talk your way out of anything. Bonus points if you’re wearing gringo pants.

After spending four hours in a tiny Peruvian airport with exactly two waiting rooms, I wanted to walk around outside, which (of course) was forbidden. But it was sunny, and there was a puppy waltzing around in the grass so obviously I made a break for it. After 15 minutes of freedom, a man came up to me in protest. But when the corners of my mouth are kissing my ears and ponies and rainbows spewing from my mouth, it’s difficult for people to say no. Thus a long, boring afternoon was instantly more interesting.

Deer-in-the-Headlights Approach

When someone yells at you to stop doing something (as is often the case for a journalist trying to get a closer look) you’d have to be pretty dense to not catch their drift. But when you adopt the deer-in-the-headlights look, life suddenly gets a lot easier.

I’d suggest practicing in the mirror until you’ve nailed your Blue Steel. Half the time DIH makes me look pathetically lost and the other half I come across like I’m having an episode. Either way, it works, and people usually leave me alone.

Speak in Tongues

Another benefit of having locked down the gringa look is that people expect you to be a Spanish fail. When someone insists on having a conversation I don’t want to have, I make as many basic Spanish errors as humanly possible. Then I randomly mix verb tenses until I see steam emanating from their ears upon which I abruptly stop everything and walk away.

Problem solved.

Fill Them with Regret

The other approach is to talk. And talk. And talk, and talk, and talk. Answer their complaint so thoroughly and exhaustively that they forget what they were upset about in the first place and can only focus on getting rid of you. It’s a pretty gutsy move that requires some fast-paced BS, but if you’re quick on your feet, it works wonders.

On my last trip to the Andes, I was cold and requested a blanket from the hotel. The front desk told me “it’s not cold” and promptly hung up. I talked to him for 15 minutes straight. I went to bed cuddling up to two blankets. #cantstopwontstop

And that, ladies n’ gents, is how to talk your way out of (or into) anything… Part I.

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galapagos, viewpoint, ocean

Planning for a Last-Minute Trip to the Galapagos

The Significant Other and I just got back from a trip to the Galapagos. Rather than gush about HOW COMPLETELY AND UTTERLY AMAZING IT WAS, I’m offering some tips to make your vacation planning easier. The devil is in the details! I think this is pretty extensive, but drop me a line in the comments if you have specific questions.

Booking a Last-Minute Galapagos Cruise

Cruises sound expensive right off the bat, but when you consider how much it costs to explore the Galapagos on your own, cruises can actually be cost-effective. For example, a day tour of North Seymour Island is ~$160. Add $20 for the hostel and $10 for home-cooked food. Factor in all the time and energy you’ll spend booking your own trips, and you’re already pushing $200. When you do the math, cruises aren’t that pricey.

NOTE: It’s impossible to base your budget off anything you read online or in a guidebook. Prices are constantly going up. Keep that in mind, and always bring extra cash in small bills $1, $5, $10.

If you can wait until two weeks before your vacation date to start looking for cruises, you can snag amazing discounts (~60 percent!). Book a flight to Quito, and stay at a hostel in the Mariscal District (NOTE: We stayed at the Traveler’s Inn. The breakfast is free and includes eggs, toast, yogurt, fruits, juice and tea/coffee. The wifi is incredibly slow, and the showers are luke-warm.) This is where all the tour companies have offices. Visit each tour office and see what kinds of deals they’re offering. Tour offices are generally open between 10 a.m.-12 p.m. and from 3 p.m.-5 p.m. They will NOT be open after 12 p.m. on Saturday or at all on Sunday.

Please be aware that all tour operators expect you to pay in cash for the tours—even if it’s a couple thousand dollars. Luckily for U.S. citizens, Ecuador operates in American dollars.

Most tour companies will offer to book the flight for you. I booked the flight on my own so I’m not sure how cost-effective this is, but it’s definitely an option.

NOTE: We almost booked a cruise with Yate Darwin and would highly caution against it. There were many frustrating problems, which I won’t go into here. We ended up booking a four-day Angelito cruise using PalmaRoja Tours. I can’t recommend the Angelito highly enough. The staff was incredibly friendly and helpful. I have several food allergies, and the cook made special meals and snacks for me every day. I never had to worry! It was amazing. Plus, our guide Maja, was the best guide I’ve had in all my years of traveling. Really fantastic company.

If you can’t find a tour you like in Quito, you can hop on a plane to the Galapagos and head directly to Puerto Ayora in Santa Cruz. Tour companies also have offices in this city and will offer deals.

sea lion, galapagos

How to Pick a Galapagos Cruise

After days of research, all the cruises started blurring into one, and I suffered from information overload. I recommend picking the cruise based on the ease of access, animals you want to see, cruise size, days at sea and budget. Make a spreadsheet and assign points—it’s the only way to stay sane.

  • Ease of Access: You can (to my knowledge) take day trips to Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, North Seymour, Floreana, Bartolome, South Plaza and Santa Fe. We chose cruises that took us to islands we couldn’t reach on our own, like Santiago and Espanola.
  • Animals: Each island is known for specific animals. No guarantee you’ll see them, of course, but there were a few endemic species that I was dying to see. For example, North Seymour: blue-footed boobies and frigate males, Santa Cruz: tortoises, Espanola: albatross, Santiago: iguanas, Santa Fe: iguanas. The cruise that promised the most animals won.
  • Cruise Size: Pay attention to the number of people on the boat. Our head count was 16, and it was perfect. Anything larger, and you’re going to get lost in the shuffle. Anything too small and your boat will be so tiny that it bobs up and down with each and every wave. Ugh.
  • Days at Sea: I’m the kind of gal who likes her feet firmly planted on the ground. It was important that we got to see what we wanted to see but didn’t spend unnecessary time on the water. We ended up with a four-day cruise, but I think we also would have enjoyed a five-day. NOTE: six- and seven-day cruises are rare. It’s usually four, five or eight days. Also remember that a “four-day” cruise is really just two days because the cruise doesn’t start till late afternoon on the first day, and ends before 10 a.m. on the last day.
  • Budget: Go in with a budget for your cruise, and follow it. I had tour operators send me “deals” that were two- to three-times more than my max budget. It was tempting, but I had to put my foot down.

frigate, galapagos

Getting to the Galapagos

Flights to the Galapagos: There are two airports in the Galapagos: Baltra and San Cristobal. If you’re thinking of taking a cruise, fly into Baltra. Most (if not all) of the cruises start/end there.

Three airlines go to the Galapagos. TAME appears to be the cheapest at first-glance, but they tack on a whole bunch of fees at checkout that actually make them more expensive. I used Avianca for the most cost-effective flights.

NOTE: Don’t forget that there’s a $120 fee to get into the Galapagos. Airport officials will also search your bags for fresh fruit and animal products. I would highly recommend bringing in your own snacks since healthy food is hard to come by on the islands. They’re OK with dried, packaged fruit, granola bars, even peanut butter sandwiches! If you don’t want your bag locked with plastic ties after getting searched, tell the officials. Keep a pair of nail clippers in case they lock your bag anyway.

Getting into Santa Cruz from the airport: You’re not allowed to walk around Baltra because it’s a military base. You’ll take a short (free!) bus from the airport to Baltra’s dock. A $1 ferry will take you across the river to the island Santa Cruz. From there you can catch a (~$5) bus or take an $18 taxi (in total NOT per person) into town. It’s a 40 minute drive via taxi and longer with the much slower bus.

Taxis are poorly labeled, white Toyota pickup trucks.

Taxis in Santa Cruz: Once you’re in town, taxi rides should be about 50 cents per person up to $1 max. Taxi drivers often pick up multiple people so don’t be alarmed if a few strangers hop into the cab.

Snorkeling tips: Snorkeling is transportation, right? A few tips to enjoy your snorkeling experience: Try on your mask before leaving land. If you can press it to your face (without using the straps) and it stays in place, it’s a good fit. If you need glasses, bring your own prescription goggles as there aren’t any (that we saw) on the islands. Or you can make your own prescription goggles. Spit on your lenses or use baby shampoo to keep them from fogging up. If you have facial hair, your mask might not fit well. Slather on some vaseline to help make the seal. Your flippers shouldn’t fit comfortably when you’re on land. They need to be a little tight because they’ll loosen up in the water. Check the snorkel mouthpiece to make sure it has two notches to bite on. I’d recommend renting a full-body wetsuit for sun protection, added buoyancy and extra warmth (the water can get chilly).

Galapagos

Things to Do in the Galapagos

I’ll write another post with an outline of our cruise. These are the two day trips we took outside the cruise.

San Cristobal

We went snorkeling off Kicker Rock and explored Cerro Brujo beach for $100 with the tour company Cindy Sol. They were very professional and served a delicious lunch. I would highly recommend their services. I don’t have the cross street for the company’s office, but the harbor area is tiny (only ~five blocks) so you can either ask for directions or walk up and down the streets until you run into Cindy Sol). NOTE: Tour agencies close in the afternoon to avoid the heat and open up again in the evening. I’d recommend booking a day trip the night before. However, most tours leave at 8:30 or 9 a.m. so you can also show up at the office around 8 a.m. and book any available seats on the spot.

Stay at Casa Mabell for $20 per person. The hostel doesn’t have a microwave, and the owner doesn’t speak English. But the place is spotless, has AC, is two minutes from the shore, and if you can speak a little Spanish, the owner will help you book tours.

Get your laundry cleaned for $1.50/kilo at La Lavanderia Rosita. We gave our clothes to them at 8 p.m., and they had everything done by 3 p.m. the next day. Great service.

North Seymour

Booked this tour with Esmeralda III. We wouldn’t recommend this boat. The guide was unnecessarily rude. The tour also promised to take us to North Seymour in the morning (better wildlife pictures!) and then snorkeling in the afternoon (cooling off!). Instead, we spent far too much time snorkeling in the morning and saw no wildlife. Then, during the heat of the day, we were rushed around North Seymour. I absolutely loved the island (we saw blue-footed boobies and frigates!), but go with a different tour company.

Signing off for now! More tips later, and please add your own!

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How (And Where) to Buy a Camera Lens in Lima, Peru

Camera equipment in Peru is expensive and challenging to find. Save yourself the hassle and buy all the equipment you need in the U.S. BUT, if you’re stuck in a bind, check out these options:

You can buy basic lenses at the chain stores Saga, Ripley and Hiraoka. There’s also Media Solutions Peru, Roditec and ZF Store. Everything at these chains will be pricey because of Peru’s import taxes. Your best bet is to buy something used.

To find quality used equipment, try surfing Mercardo Libre or OLX.com—the Peruvian equivalents of EBay. Visit Calle Porta in Miraflores, which is a street lined with (mostly) reputable camera shops. Or frequent CompuPalace on a regular basis. They often have great deals on used glass.

If you’re really desperate visit Polvos Azules, Lima’s go-to for every pirated DVD and computer game ever. They’ll also have what you’re looking for—just be suspect of the quality.

In preparation for a last-minute trip to Argentina, I purchased a “lente gran angular” from a camera seller I found on OLX.com. I managed to get him down 100 soles, but it was a good deal for both of us. He had a quality lens, which I needed quickly and couldn’t afford to buy new, and I paid in cash. Everyone loves cash!

Now, I’m no expert on buying used cameras, but here’s a check list I threw together from reading hours of Internet forums:

How to Check a Used Camera Lens

    • Check the outside of the lens. Scratches are OK. Dents mean the lens could’ve been dropped. Walk away.

Same goes for fungus. If you suspect a lens has fungus inside (which is pretty common in Lima), do NOT put it on your camera body. Run far, run fast.

  • Lens creep: point the lens up to the sky and down at the ground. Does the lens “creep” aka slide forward or backward?
  • Look through the lens like a telescope
  • Is the mount clean?
  • Check autofocus speed
  • Check manual focus
  • Smell it: If the person was a smoker, you’ll know it. Not necessarily a deal-breaker, but good to know.
  • Use a bright light and shine it inside the lens to look for scratches that will reduce quality. Don’t worry too too much about dust.
  • Rotate lens and listen for loose material moving around
  • Zoom in and out while listening for loose material or grating sounds
  • Make sure the lens hood stays locked
  • Check weather sealing
  • Make sure the filter screws on and off easily
  • Take a picture all the way open
  • Take a picture all the way closed
  • Check for center defects
  • Turn on and off IS
  • Take a picture of a newspaper to check clarity
  • (I recently learned this!) If a lens isn’t used for a long time, you can get oil marks inside. Check for the oil marks using preview.
  • Take photos using autofocus in single AND continuous mode
  • Take photos in light setting AND dark settings
  • Is there a warranty?
  • Check for centering defects
  • Take a picture of a pattern and check to see if there’s distortion
  • Bring your laptop and take a look at 50-100 photos on your laptop.
  • Enjoy your new lens!

 

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