Friday, December 13, 2013

A Tribute to the Dutch aka Rachel is extremely angry

As I am about to pull my hair out in frustration over my upcoming Cameroon trip/the associated project. To release some of my anger without bashing any world regions/countries and express my increasingly deep appreciation for Dutch people and the general pleasure it is to work with them, I give you a tribute to Dutch.

Dear Dutchies,

I crossed continents and oceans to come to your small country unfortunately mainly well known for its special "herbal" products. I came from countries where punctuality, planning and directness are not valued as highly as in your grey and flat land. Oh Dutchies I appreciate how when we agree on tasks and distribute work, there is a very high probability that you will do what is agreed upon and in the time frame agreed upon. When I send an email I can expect a prompt response in clear and understandable English. But if there is some problem, I know I can directly express my concerns without risk of damaging our relationship. This directness makes our final product of the best quality.

Dearest Nederlanders, I love how meetings are conducted efficiently and generally people accept responsibility for their actions. It is a pleasure to not have to talk in circles and in the end get minimal information out of a conversation. Perhaps you are not the most expressive in word and deed but your words and actions are valued.

Yes, you do take your precious agendas a bit too seriously. While I am not fond of scheduling a social lunch months in advance, I do appreciate your organization and ability to follow through with a plan. More importantly, although it is often frustrating how seriously you take your work life balance and your tendency to immediately dash out the door when working hours are complete, I love that when you are working you actually get work done.

Finally, although email, phone, sms, and the dearly beloved Whatsapp messaging service are less personal than face to face interactions, you have embraced all forms of communication and respond in a timely, clear manner without me resorting to every communication method known to man.

Your plain and bland food may not strike my fancy, but precious, precious Dutchies I would give anything for one of you to be leading this Cameroon project.

with kindest regards,

a Rachel who may be becoming quite political uncorrect or even worse: racist!

Thursday, December 5, 2013


A few weeks ago I came to a both exciting and frightening realization: every single minute, hour, day of our lives are 100% unique and we will never experience that exact moment again. On the one hand this is an intimidating and frightening thought but on a more positive note it makes one realize how special the present is, even if we may be counting down the hours, days, weeks, months to a seemingly more exciting moment. The concept of living in the present is something we could take a lesson or two from stereotypical African culture. While living in the present there often means meetings starting hours late, perpetual tardiness to work, and the tasks left uncompleted; it also means impromptu visits from friends, stopping all to do lists (I'm still skeptical that the concept of a to do list even exists there), and simply taking the time to chat with people even if it means being late for something. Living in super organized, scheduled, punctual, consistent and efficient Holland where socializing is scheduled months in advance (I am not exaggerating here), being late is frowned upon, completion of tasks is assumed, and holidays are planned practically years in advance has mostly been an easy transition since I also have an obsession with planning and control (in the broad sense). Although in recent years I am lucky to know where I will be living a few months in advance I am still constantly making plans and looking forward to the next adventure.

Approximately a month ago now (where did the time go?) while enduring the grueling exam period that stretches on forever here, I had the astonishing thought to simply stop counting down the days and number of exams left until new things began but to actually sit down and ENJOY the process of studying and the sometimes challenging task of exam taking. This was indeed a revelation since although I thoroughly enjoy the school environment and learning and reading and listening, I am actually quite horrible at sitting down and studying. So far I have managed to survive by constantly changing my study environment and mostly just cramming all the information into my brain the night before an exam (yes, I know this is what everyone says not to do). In spite of my dislike for studying during my first exam this year a thought popped into my head: "I am incredibly lucky to be sitting in this room simply taking this exam!" Shifting my focus from one of just completing everything, to trying to enjoy the moments of studying with the knowledge that I am exceptionally privileged to be able to study and more importantly realizing I will never be in this exact situation again in my life, made for a surprisingly pleasant exam period.

Last year when I wrote my annual year summary I left on the note that perhaps this year would be uncomfortably "stable". While I have spent the whole year theoretically living in the same city, 2013 certainly has brought its share of travels, adventures and surprises. But perhaps more importantly I am starting to become more comfortable with the notion of simply enjoying every moment I have and not stressing about my next plans or destination. In light of enjoying the present and being thankful for all the moments we get (and in the spirit of American Thanksgiving) I leave you with a few things I'm thankful for:

-A lovely visit from the best mother anyone could ask for. We discovered the picturesque and fairy tale like veggie capital (most vegetarian restaurants per capita and even a meat free day at schools) of Europe (Gent, Belgium), wandered through various Dutch cities, and visited a few too many natural food stores.

-A cozy apartment with friendly roommates (even if some of our roommates are perhaps three generations of mice)

-Opportunities for travel (recently: Freiburg, Budapest & Tunisia)

-A healthy body

-The opportunity to study

-Biking as my primary mode of transport

-Being debt free

Back to living in the present---which means writing a 3000 word paper that's due tomorrow and hasn't even been started...

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Pumpkin and Procrastination

A mountain of reading to do, a report to write, one assignment to finish, a long list of emails to send for thesis contacts, research to do, plane tickets to book, cleaning to do, a holiday to plan with my mom... But I'd rather procrastinate and share a few thoughts and links (mostly about food).

  • Freiburg, Germany just entered my list of top cities. Mountains, fall colors, plaid wearing environmentalists, mountain bikes, vineyards, farms serving fresh food from their crops, a market with delicious local specialties, scores of vegetarian friendly restaurants, the sunniest city in Germany, and the hub of green party activity in Germany. Ironically, I nearly applied to a master program here 2.5 years ago. 
  • I am beyond excited about this website: . You can cook for and host people or eat delicious food at someone's house all over the world. Cooking, eating, and meeting new people=brilliant!
  • In case you're in need of healthy food inspiration, want to procrastinate by drooling over pictures of delicious food:
  • Looking for a healthy and delicious snack? Soak some dates for an hour or so, throw them in a blender with your nut of choice (I recommend raw cashews), some cocoa powder (high quality is best), coconut, chia seeds, flax, cocoa nibs or chocolate chips, and anything else you want. Mix away (hopefully you have a better blender than me), roll into balls, feel free to roll the balls in coconut or cocoa powder then immediately consume! Try not to eat them all at once!
  • Pumpkin is delicious. And more delicious when you go through the tedious process of preparing it yourself. So ditch that canned pumpkin, go to a farm, buy a pumpkin and cook it yourself! Try pumpkin soup, curry, burritos, flammkuchen (after my recent visit), pie, bread, muffins, cookies... and don't forget to roast the seeds. 
  • Eat your beets. But don't panic if your pee is red. 
  • The dense, seedy, nutty, and wholesome goodness of German bread cannot be beat. It's totally worth it to lug around "bricks" of bread back to the Netherlands. 
  • Understanding German and Dutch is quite gratifying and makes unplanned and long train delays very amusing. Observing how stressed and uptight Germans get when things do not function right and how Dutch resort to sarcasm and jokes to make the inconvenience more tolerable is entertaining. These two neighboring places could often not be more different. I love them both in their own ways. 
  • Speaking German with middle aged Germans is fun! Speaking English sentences in a German way by accident is funnier. 
  • European food gets progressively tastier the further south you move. 
  • Sharing is caring (food, drinks, clothes, beds, rooms, money, ideas, love)
  • The economic crisis is not the fault of the republican or democrat party alone but the result of a faulty economic system. Go read this book: From Financial Crisis to Stagnation by Thomas Palley. Let's stop all the name calling and blaming and change the system! 
  • I am going to to Budapest in a week in a half, Tunisia in about two to learn about smart grids, and my favorite mother is coming three weeks!
Happy fall and happy studying to all the students out there! Enjoy being a student while it lasts! 

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Priorities and Mosquitos

“If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.”

This quote is the best summary of what I've learned over the last three months. To attempt and summarize my busy, awesome, educational, fun, inspiring, and mostly insane summer in a blog post is impossible. I don't know who is still reading this blog but perhaps many of you know that two of my biggest passions involve preserving this beautiful, unique and perfectly designed world we live in, and seeing the quality of life improve for all of earth's citizens. The intersection of these two passions is the primary reason why I chose to study in Delft rather than going the more usual route and attending one of the world wide ranked American universities (although Delft is also ranked internationally). Although the social and political atmosphere in the Netherlands and Europe in general is also riddled with barriers preventing the widespread movement of mitigating climate change, it is a far more encouraging environment to begin actively seeking solutions to most pressing challenge that perhaps humanity has ever faced. 

Besides travels to Norway, hitching hiking to Paris, a conference in the US, a whirl wind visit to friends and family, and attempting to sort through fifteen years of life, I spent five weeks of my summer attending a summer school on climate change and entrepreneurship and upon return to Delft immediately focused my classes around the complex issues surrounding sustainability. The summer school surpassed my expectations, primarily because of the people I met, but most importantly the last three months have forced me to ponder my priorities. I say that I care about the environment, but over the last three years I have made far too many short and long distance flights, an activity that significantly contributes to global CO2 emissions. I desperately want to see the sustainable electrification of the continent of Africa which has led me to my current Cameroon off grid lighting project and the business idea that came out of the summer school. However, I also desperately want to see the political decision making and discourse dramatically change in the US. As I contemplate my plans for next year and strongly consider the possibility of continuing studying (PhD!) and begin the frightening and overwhelming task of writing PhD proposals, I realize I need to give some focus to my life. As much as a love meeting new people, I also need to prioritize the people who really mean something to me. As much as love learning, it is impossible to learn about everything and work in every area. As much as I love traveling, can I really continue flying as much as do and ignore the environmental impact that flying has (side fact: jet fuel is not taxed, which is why it is often significantly cheaper to fly rather than take the train within Europe)?

I am convinced that we are not too small to make a difference. So I am going to start taking small steps to make a difference. Before I go back to attempting to write a detailed PhD research proposal, I leave you with some snapshots of the summer (and a bit before). 

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Less Traveled Road

I'm an extremely mobile person. Plopping down in a new and foreign place is generally a pretty effortless and exciting task for me. Perhaps too effortless. But as I'm about to finish the school year (finally!), bringing about a new set of changes and transitions (although I will fortunately still be in a Delft for a bit longer at least), I realized I'm getting really attached to my life here and this flat, grey, little country in general which is a frightening concept for a person who feels most alive when I'm meeting new people and exploring new places. I'm getting attached to:

  • Hopping on my bike and riding around to any place I need to go on the well organized and separate and FLAT bike lines. Any distance that is less than 15 km from my house is faster to reach by bike 90% of the time. I've taken this ease of transportation for granted and I'm too keen to lose it any time soon. 
  • The small and friendly health food store near my apartment. I pick up my weekly bag of fruits and veggies, buy my quinoa and beans and appreciate how the employees now recognize me and take the time to inquire about my well-being. 
  • My precious, precious Greek roommate. We get along so incredibly well I've almost forgotten how fortunate we are in this sense. Not only do we get along well but she is one of my dear friends here. While I have no plans of losing her, we will VERY unfortunately not be living together next year and every time I am reminded of this fact I get extremely sad. 
  • My football team. Joining a football club where many of the members have played together for nearly ten years might seem rather intimidating. But my teammates and the club atmosphere in general is welcoming, inclusive, and positive. I'm immensely happy that I'm finally playing the sport that eluded me for so long! 
  • Dutch directness. I've always erred on the side of speaking my mind too freely, but I've come to the conclusion that although we certainly need to pay caution to the words we speak, being direct saves so much time and confusion in the end! Working in Korea with a culture where the word no was practically forbidden, was beyond frustrating. I've taken for granted that I can get a direct answer to my questions and I don't have to doubt people's sincerity. 
  • My bike (s). I recently purchased a racing bike (his name is Joop--pronounce Yoop) so in addition to my rickety city bike that gets me from place to place, I've been taking advantage of the flatness of Holland and the well developed network of bike paths to cycle! 
  • Borrels. There is no proper English translation for this common Dutch word. The best translation would be something like cozy drinks. The word "cozy" or gezellig is very rooted in Dutch culture. Having a biertje (small beer) with friends after football or after a long day of courses and studying is so much a part of Dutch culture and I can't imagine life without borrels. 
  • My classmates. While I think we drive each other crazy half the time, we are also a close knit and friendly bunch. Next year we will all scatter to either study abroad, do different specializations (meaning different courses), or do graduation projects abroad (me!). I'm sad that our little group will split and I will dearly miss this funny, smart and diverse group.
As much as I love the experience of being in a new place and being inspired by new people, I actually HATE change and saying goodbye. How this is possible, I don't know. So while I'm thoroughly looking forward to my cram packed summer and the reunions and new faces that it will bring, I'm also thoroughly dreading the goodbyes and see you laters and closure that will occur in the next few weeks. The transient life is not an easy one.

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–I took the one less traveled by.  And that has made all the difference.”
- Robert Frost

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Spring? Summer? Or Winter?

Hello friends, stalkers, family and anyone else who might happen to be reading this blog. I am in fact alive just a bit busy. The past few months have passed by in a blur of report writing, exams, reading, traveling, hosting visitors, playing football, running... Instead of attempting to write a coherent post (since I have enough writing to do over the next few weeks) I'll give you the bulleted version with pictures.

I managed to survive 25 years of life. In Dutch Happy Birthday is "Gefeliciteerd" which directly translated means "congratulations". I find it an amusing view of making it to another year. Also in March I popped over to London for a quick weekend visit to my dear friend and old roommate Lindsey while she visited her sister who was studying abroad in England for a semester. London is a fabulous city full of delicious food, FREE museums, EXPENSIVE transport (and food), good shopping and lots of other things I did not have time to see. Fortunately, I will actually be back in the city for three weeks end of August (more on this later). Before London, I also ran the flatest half marathon of my life (lucky since my half marathon training was sub-par) and somehow managed to win a 60 euro gift card (way to go Den Haag Tenloop for having a student prize category).

I spent most of April locked inside a library writing and studying but once it was all over I popped over to a fairy tale like village in Germany to visit a friend then returned to the Netherlands just in time to join in the sea of orange clad partiers celebrating the last Queen's Day celebration in a long while. For those of you unfamiliar with Queen's Day, it's a Dutch holiday devoted to the queen only now we have a king in the Netherlands so "koninginnedag" will be Koning Dag next year.

After Queen's day, I took the advantage of having a visitor to experience quintessential Holland and go for a lovely 45 km cycle through tulip fields, along the sea, and through quaint Dutch villages. Then, I set off on a warm weather escape (since the weather in Holland seems to still be confused what season it is) to Greece with my precious Greek roommate. In spite of lost luggage, Greece was perfect. Being fed excessively, beaches in Crete, hospitality, ancient ruins, and most importantly SUNSHINE! 

And since May is almost over what is in store for the next few months? The next few weeks will be filled with studying, writing, and researching, then end of June I have the amazing opportunity to attend an all expenses paid for one week class in Trondheim Norway! My semester finally finishes July 1st, so after two hopefully somewhat relaxing weeks I am US bound to present a paper at a conference in Boston, then Michigan for a week to sell/throw away my old life there (in case you hadn't heard--the family is slowly moving to California over the next year), and finally Michigan to Munich beginning of August for the start of a summer program in climate change and entrepreneurship. I'll finish off the program in London for three weeks and then back to Delft to start a new semester. I feel confused and stressed just writing all this down so if you managed to figure out my plans by this incoherent paragraph, I'm extremely impressed. 

There are probably 10,000 English and grammar errors in this post but it's finished! 

Tuesday, February 26, 2013


It's almost exactly one year since I boarded the plane to Uganda. My dearest fellow intern reminded me of this fact yesterday and it got me to thinking and feeling a bit nostalgic. I should be doing a million other things right now but I felt the need to spew out some of my thoughts into semi-coherent words. Lately, perhaps because of my impending quarter of a century birthday, I've been continuing my contemplation of home and the direction of my life. A brief review of my life would show that it's clear I've never been one of those oh so lucky people who had a pretty clear path from the beginning. My life "plan" changes approximately every day and my plans never work out the way I envision either.

Certainly, my generation is one of wanderers. Our priorities and goals have shifted and we have opportunities at our fingertips that our parents didn't. But regardless of the lifestyle changes of my generation, there is something to be said about having roots. Perhaps you travel the whole world and stretch and grow and scatter some seeds in different places, but there are still roots to hold your ever growing leaves and branches in place, to allow you to weather a storm, to remind you of who you are. But the concept of roots is difficult for me. Yes, I have clear citizenship, I have a place in the US where I have spent a significant amount of time (and it is significant!). But when someone asks me where I'm from and I'm forced to specify a state, it makes me pause. How do you really determine where you're from? Where you've spent the most time? Where most of your friends are? Where you identify the most culturally? Where your family is? I would  give a different location if I answered each of those questions separately. Over the last week, I've interacted with old friends, new friends, random acquaintances and strangers and the common theme of the week has been home. One wise new acquaintance told me that you always return home and kept asking me where home is. When he was finally exasperated by my unclear answers he said: "find a place then and make it home".

Human beings want to belong somewhere. I think I have been gifted with the talent of being able to adapt very effortlessly in many different environments--the ability to make any place my home. But, increasingly I have this desire to find a place, or at least accept the life of a nomad. Even for me it does get tiring constantly making new friends, packing and unpacking, and often explaining myself to people. There are very, very few people in the world who know the full Rachel and with each new place I move the number of people who really know me does not increase. What makes up Rachel instead constantly changes, making old friends unfamiliar, and new friends familiar.

I've loved all the places I've lived. I've disliked parts of all the places I've lived. And I've perhaps too harshly criticized all the places I've lived. Maybe I will find a place. Maybe I will grow roots. Or maybe I will simply let people be my roots. I will let strong friendships allow me to weather storms and make me feel secure. I'm becoming increasingly convinced that places can be taken away from you and perhaps I'm stronger by putting my trust in God and friendships than becoming perhaps too comfortable in one place.

Back to work! And this old post is also what sparked my thoughts (even though it is a bit unrelated).

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Some things to think about

This post is completely unrelated to travel, Rachel, school or pretty much any other topic on this blog, but I've been doing a lot of thinking about the recent Connecticut shooting. Many of you probably already know my views and thoughts on the situation but regardless of what I think, it's time that all Americans really sit down and think about this problem. Many of my European friends approached me attempting to understand the shocking (to them and to me) pro-gun reactions of their American friends on facebook, and I also attempted to explain how different the culture is in the US and how deep rooted our gun culture is (even the fact that gun ownership is mentioned in our constitution). Although I am fully convinced that the situation is far more complex than just stricter gun control, I really, really want to encourage anyone reading this post to do some serious research on the varying viewpoints in this debate. I've found a lot of statistics that suggest that guns could play a large role in the problem. So if you're reading this, would you please take a moment to read the articles I'm posting below and challenge yourself? Be skeptical, read different viewpoints, find statistics, question the statistics, think about the big picture, and think about the world. As a former engineer/person who can't get numbers out of my head, I like numbers. I believe they can prove hypotheses, and often tell stories better than words. However, numbers are also very dangerous. It is far too easy to collect data and make correlations between unrelated variables, or skew statistics or only present partial numbers. Lastly, if you have some well researched, well written, and solidly argued resources for either side of the debate; I would also be delighted to read them.  What I do not want to read are rude, ignorant, and angry comments.

Some statistics

The case of Switzerland

Weapons continuum 

Why gun control is not enough

Swiss gun culture

More on the cases of Switzerland and Isreal there is an interesting research paper linked to this article and I am going to try and get my hands on it through University permissions.

Facts on guns in the US I would suggest also reading the links that the author has posted to do some fact checking. 

Monday, January 7, 2013

Random Thoughts

I don't really make New Year's resolutions but if I were to one of them would be to write more and update this blog more. Compared to my thoughts and posts in Uganda I feel like I have nothing significant to say about life in the Netherlands. Someone has already written "Stuff Dutch People Like" (I may create a Ugandan version though, now that I no longer work for SP), I'm generally not confronted with daily life-changing lessons like in Uganda nor do I have the strange cultural interactions of Korea. However, since I know some people read this blog to simply keep updated on my life, I thought I would share random thoughts, events, and stories periodically (probably only when I'm procrastinating on doing something else, like right now). The last month and half, although lacking in the daily challenges that Ugandan life provided, has had its own share of humorous and unfortunate events.

  • I truly am my father's daughter. When our apartment was broken into in November I had arrived home very late from a football match in Amsterdam. Upon arrival I noticed that our kitchen window was open. Often our apartment gets stuffy and we open the window; therefore I just assumed this was why it was open. Since it was late I also assumed my roommate was already in bed and didn't bother actually checking her room. Exhausted and just as I was about to dose off my roommate knocks on my door in a panic asking if I had opened her window. No. Shortly thereafter we discovered that both our laptops were missing. As any normal person would react my roommate was a bit panicked: "We've been robbed!" Since by this point it was about 4 am and the only thought on my mind was sleep, I couldn't bring myself to feel panicked or stressed. The problem could be sorted in the morning right? Fortunately, my roommate convinced me to call the police and have them come and file a report. Again, like a normal person she was unable to sleep while I promptly collapsed into bed and fell into a deep slumber only thinking about the 9 am meeting I had the next day. I have now warned her that I am virtually incapable of doing significant tasks at night and it's best just to force me to do things. In the morning however my reasoning capabilities are at their best and my mind is free and clear to do anything. This realization is a bit frightening, knowing how my dad reacts to similar late night catastrophes. 
  • In the last month I have managed to take the wrong key off my keychain when leaving for a run only to get locked out of my apartment, get hit on my bike by a scooter (not my fault), and drop my key off my eight story balcony into thick bushes below. So much for life in Holland being boring compared to Uganda. Perhaps my constant need for change and adventure has caused me to subconsciously create misfortunes to keep life interesting. 
  • For the first time in my life, I've found a church that I love and am beginning to feel a part of. It is diverse, has a big focus on social justice, and is filled with well traveled inspiring individuals. 
  • Loving the work you're doing makes a remarkable difference when you're very busy and overloaded with work. Although I've never been a slacker per se, when faced with work I dislike my motivation is extremely low. For the first time, I might almost be considered an over-achiever (but this is still too strong a word to use). 
  • Delft feels so much like home it's actually terrifying. Although I've wanted a dog for some time, my dog yearnings are getting stronger and stronger and may actually materialize into taking action (don't tell my apartment company). 
  • On a similar note, I really think I'm aging (or perhaps finally becoming mature?). Although lately I've been having some serious wanderlust pangs, I've also been considering not studying abroad next year because I feel so settled and happy in Delft (What?!). I have little to no desire to stay out late on weekends and would much prefer going to bed early and waking up early to go running (okay, maybe this isn't a change... haha!). I actually spend money on proper food without having a heart attack about the cost. And most recently I came to the realization that maybe it's occasionally worth spending 50 euros more to fly on a proper airline or save hassle in some other area. I've also contemplated foregoing the hours and days that I often spend evaluating any major purchase for its thriftiness. Perhaps the next step will be reducing my risky behavior (probably not likely if I am my father's daughter)? 
  • Visiting the US truly felt like a visit. And with each return I feel more and more disconnected in the US. Sometimes this makes me very sad but I think it's too late to fix it. I was frightened at the seemingly unnecessarily wide roads, frustrated with all the driving we had to do (I think the distance I traversed would have carried me through all of the Netherlands), and shocked at the clothes that some Americans felt were appropriate to be in public in (I'm not judging, it just surprised me. The scary thing is used to be one of those people and now I find it shocking). On the other hand, I appreciated the diversity (even though the Netherlands is also quite diverse), friendliness of random strangers, and the long time friendships I have in the US. I love my family and American friends dearly and I don't know how to resolve this love with my love of the unknown and new and the feeling that my heart is scattered all over the world. For those of you who perceive my confusion over perhaps common Americanisms as dislike for my country or snobbishness  I apologize that it may have come across that way. Try living in four different countries, surrounded by an extremely diverse group of people for 2.5 years and then try to reintegrate into your old life. It's virtually impossible. 
  • After spending most of my life wishing I had played soccer, I am finally on a team and loving every minute of it. Even though I lack skills, I am getting lots of positive feedback and help. It's never too late to start something new! 
On a concluding note, my visit to the US also reminded me how all my friends are in different places in life. While I suspect we can't all completely relate to each other since so much has changed over the last two plus years, I deeply appreciate and value all my friendships. I sincerely hope we can continue to stay in touch and understand each other in spite of our different places in life. Likely I will never reach many of the life goals some people have set for themselves and I'm sure that most people will not have any desire to do the ridiculous things I do. Regardless of the direction our lives go, I love you all and hope that we can continue to stay in touch! 

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Lessons from 2012

As indicated by the date of my last post my blogging habits have been rather dismal for the last few months. Besides the excuse of the increasing busyness of school, the fact that I was robbed and have been laptop-less for the past month in half has been the main contributor to my lack of writing. After a lovely week and a half of catching up with family and friends in the arctic weather of Ann Arbor, Michigan and Chicago, I'm back in "warm" Delft.

Since it's a new year and the new year always brings about the opportunity for reflection, I've been thinking about the lessons that I learned from 2012. 2012 was a year of transitions perhaps more than any other year in my life and with each of these transitions brought rich learning experiences. I am enormously grateful for the people I've been blessed to meet this year, the beautiful places I've seen, and the unpredictability of 2012 that taught me more about myself and the world.

Lessons from 2012:

1. Almost nothing in the world is black and white. 
For much of my life, I tended to view the world in black and white or right and wrong. My somewhat mathematical mind that gravitates towards the concrete and seeks solutions, only reinforced this worldview. In engineering school, there was always a right answer to be found, an equation that could be applied to find a solution, and rules that governed behaviour. Slowly, I've been learning that life and most of the world's problems cannot be solved through an engineering approach (although the problem solving skills that engineering taught me have been invaluable). Democracy is not the "right" system of governance. Development problems are so complex and multi-faceted that a solution or solutions seem completely inadequate. Even the existence of a "problem" can be debated: what is viewed as a problem to one party, might be a solution to another.

Now I prefer to view the world in color, trying to open the color wheel of my mind to new possibilities, theories, solutions, problems, and people. In light of the recent tragedy in Connecticut and all the debate surrounding it, I sincerely hope that we can open our minds to first acknowledge that there is a problem in our country, then seek to accept that there may be many possible solutions and combinations of solutions. I may share my views on this tragedy later but for now I encourage everyone (myself included) to think about how multi-faceted the problem may be and how it may require us to fundamentally alter our culture (because culture is not right or wrong).

This year I've learned that while the western world views Uganda's astronomically high fertility rate as a problem, Uganda views it as a solution. While the sanctions on Iran can be seen as more "effective" and probably a better alternative to violent action, they have placed significant burden on ordinary Iranians more so perhaps than the government. While affordable/practically free education can lead to highly educated citizens and zero to low debt for graduated students, it can also lead to less motivation and longer time to finish studies. While high taxes (particularly for the wealthy)  might be seen as unfair or restricting capitalism, they also provide services such as low cost education, high quality and affordable healthcare, and good infrastructure and public transit. While foreign aid can prevent starvation, it can also promote a culture of dependency and stifle real economic growth.

Viewing the world in color doesn't necessarily mean sacrificing morals, it just means stretching your mind to view the world through a different lens. I'm thankful for the experiences of 2012 that "colored" my worldview.

2. Life is short. 
Prior to 2012 I had experienced a few deaths of those close to me, but living in Uganda brought the reality of the briefness of life to the forefront. The sudden death of our project driver in Uganda and the daily news of staff family member deaths (often children), made me both grateful for the quality healthcare I've received and made me think more closely about how I can make the time (how ever long that may be) given me count.

I hope that I can remember to make every day meaningful and treasure the time I have with those that are close to me.

3. Relationships are far more valuable than things. 
This lesson may seem a bit basic and is something I could have preached about years ago, but 2012 brought many reminders of the lasting value in human relationships. Naturally, living in the developing world reminds you about how belongings do not bring happiness and living in Uganda forced me to re-think how to simplify my life. Living simply has never come too difficultly for me, mostly due to my lifelong borderline obsession with saving money. My difficulty has come more in re-evaluating my relationship with money. I've never had the dream of being a CEO or becoming a millionaire or even being rich. Perhaps compared to many, I own very little, but certainly compared to most of the world's population I live a life of luxury. Ironically, 2012's biggest lesson in money did not come from Uganda but rather in the Netherlands.

Approximately six weeks ago my apartment was robbed and my laptop stolen. For much of the last year I was living in sub-Saharan Africa, knowing that I should always be aware of the risk of theft. Fortunately, I was never robbed. I still have a hard time believing that I was robbed in the Netherlands, but I am actually thankful for the experience. Surprisingly, after losing my laptop the only thing I found myself upset about was the loss of some photos and documents--irreplaceable items. The experience made me realize how "stuff" is almost always replaceable and brings very little long term joy. Human beings and memories are not replaceable and therefore relationships, not bank accounts should grow and develop. While I still do not enjoy spending money, I am extremely grateful that I had the money to purchase a new laptop and although I still place high value on being financially responsible, I hope I can waste more energy in cultivating meaningful friendships than stressing about spending money.

4. Dogs sadly have shorter lives than humans. 
Perhaps this lesson is one I should have learned long ago, but somehow I never imagined coming back to Michigan without being greeted by the best dog in the world: Unser. On December 20th, 2012, Unser was put down. I will never forget Unser's love for the snow, his excitement over going for a run with me, his love of human beings and other dogs, his dislike of being alone, his love of killing innocent creatures such as fawns and baby rabbits, his love of sleeping on the couch in spite of his knowledge that he wasn't allowed to, and his stubbornness.

I will never understand why dogs mean so much to human beings and why we become so attached to them. Perhaps it's the unconditionally, non-judgmental love they display. Either way, Unser had a special place in my heart and I will forever miss him.

5. Human beings can get along in spite of differences. 
Over the last year, I've had the privilege of meeting and making friends with: Americans, Ugandans, Kenyans, Irish, Italians, English, Zimbabweans, South Africans, Koreans, Iranians, Dutch, Germans, Turkish, French, Greeks, Chinese, Vietnamese, Indonesians, and many more that I'm probably forgetting. Many of these people come from countries that do not have good relationships with the US government, most of them have different beliefs and culture than me, but in spite of all outside differences I've learned so much from these people and I can't imagine life without them. Reading the world news depresses me, but when I spend time with the wonderful people who I've crossed paths with I'm filled with hope for our world. I truly do believe that human beings can get along in spite of differences.

There are probably a million more smaller lessons that 2012 taught me but I'll conclude with this thought: on my birthday last year I was asked the question of what one thing do I want to accomplish by my next birthday (which is rapidly approaching). I answered that I hope to be in grad school in the Netherlands. At the time my answer scared me because the last year and half had been filled with rejections (a concept that I wasn't familiar with), but amazingly I am here and feel incredibly blessed that I am. For the first time, I'm beginning to understand the frightening (to me at least) idea of settling down and home. I wouldn't have expected to call Delft home after the last two years of globe trotting, my extreme dislike for grey skies and cold, and love of mountains. But surprisingly, I feel at home a midst the rain, bikes, canals and cheese. Who knows if I will ever settle down or more specifically settle here, but at the moment I'm learning to be content living somewhere I feel comfortable in, feeling part of a community, and knowing where I will be for approximately the next year and a half. 2013 already feels uncomfortably stable but I am sure it will bring its own share of adventures, surprises, and lessons.