Category: world

Beer Journal: Brewery Tours

I love brewery tours. Especially in Europe.

I’ve done quite a few, but two really stand out.

First, the Heineken Brewery in Amsterdam. It’s slick, it’s corporate. But it’s got lots of fun things. Or maybe it doesn’t…I don’t really remember.

Why don’t I remember? Because I went to the Heineken Brewery with Lee, on our whirlwind tour of Europe during Holy Week while I was in grad school and Lee was working for The Alley in Houston. Amersterdam was our first stop, and we were there for 36 hours. At no time in that 36 hours was I fully aware of what I was doing. We are so so so tired in this picture.


We’d left my London flat at 3am. By 10am we were at the Heineken Brewery, hyped up on caffeine. Thanks to the samples given at the Heineken tour, by noon we were asleep on a bench on the top floor of the Van Gough museum. At some point there was more caffeine, and this happened:


After that is was around 4 o’clock, maybe a little after…

Somewhere along the line, this happened:

Girl in shoe

The other brewery tour I remember fondly was the Carlsberg brewery in Copenhagen. I went with my cousins, Matthew, Tommy, and Alex. We were on another backpack blitz of Europe, on the way to Tommy’s law school summer course in Innsbruck. Matthew and I had done a Eurail trip together before, and I think we can both agree that it was a sign of our deep familial bond that we tried it again.

Copenhagen was our second stop after visiting the family in Stockholm/Boxholm. I personally find Copenhagen a little odd, but this was a classic brewery tour. I don’t remember how, but somehow Alex and I got separated from the boys and found ourselves in the bar at the end of the tour (a standard feature). Carlsberg is more generous than most with their samples. We got two full size beers of our choice. To consume in the 30 minutes we were allowed to stay in the bar.


Carlsberg makes Elephant Beer. Which at the time had an ABV of 12%.

I woke up on a bench just outside the brewery. I’m not certain, but I think Alex did too.

I guess my criteria for a good brewery tour is the quality of the nap you get at the end.

Beer Journal: Nile Special

Some people have wine journals. Liz James told me about beer journals. Mine will double as a travel journal. When I travel, I drink beer. Not haute beer. Not craft beer. Not hip beer. Everyman beer. Beer I can order in any restaurant, or snatch at a corner store after a long day of activity. And these stories are not about the most amazing places I’ve seen. They are about times I had a beer, and the people who shared them.

This is Nile Special. It’s Ugandan.

Nile Beer

The first time I had a Nile was at a restaurant called Ethiopian Village in the Kabalagala neighborhood of Kampala. It was 2006. I was with my dear friend Mauryne, and we were just hanging out, letting the evening hang out with us. I had spent the last two weeks in a frenzy learning about development, microinvestment, public health, environmental efforts. We had seen the sights: the B’hai Temple, the markets, the lake. We rafted the Nile (the actual river…not an idiom for drinking too much).

But this was the best part, just hanging out with Mauryne in the neighborhood. That’s when I felt most keen on Uganda. We repeated the experience in 2007, when I came to do research for my Master’s thesis. I find beer when I’m looking to get out of my head. Even if I only have one, it’s the act of “having a beer” that does it. That says “just be here.”

In 2008, I brought another important friend to drink Nile beer with me at Ethiopian Village, Liz Ward. Here we are having yet another Nile at the Ndere Center, a cultural show where we made Mauryne be a tourist with us:

Liz and Mo

In 2010 the Ethiopian Village was the site of one of two deadly terrorist attacks on Kampala during the World Cup. Lewis had just come home from the city a week before. Mauryne had just gone home from the restaurant when the bomb went off. God was good to the ones I love. And I remembered what kind of world we live in…it’s so easy to forget that anything could go wrong when the sun is setting over the hills of Kampala, and you’re eating injera and drinking a Nile.

Last-Call Adventure: The Gault Site

On our list of adventures to have with our buddy Colin, perhaps one of the geekier ones involved a visit to the Gault Site, one of the most significant archaeological sites in the world. That’s right…the world. I’m not just spouting superlatives. Apparently people come from around the world to study and work on this failed farm outside of Florence, Texas that contained a treasure trove of early human debris.

Human's have been leaving our tools laying around for ages.
Humans have been leaving our tools laying around for ages.

Our adventure began at 6:50 am, when our 9-person caravan set out for Florence, a two-hour journey. Ironically, Colin could not make it (he was having a totally different adventure that he will write about himself), but his sporting girlfriend, Jenna, rustled up a replacement.

The tour through the Gault Site, an unassuming ranch gate nestled between quarries on the scrubby Edward’s escarpment, starts slowly. We saw a railroad boxcar which told the history of Florence in it’s ramshackle remains. A cotton boom-town, destroyed by synthetics and boll weevles.

The boxcar where the people of Florence once lived.
The boxcar where the people of Florence once lived.

We watched an atlatl demonstration and discussed the importance of maclura pomifera (Bodark trees) before heading into the creek bed where the Gault riches have been found.

Gault has yielded, according to our knowledgeable and entertaining guide, three huge surprises.

1) A Columbian Mammoth jawbone with tools nearby. Indicating that the megafauna was hunted and butchered on the site.

2) 2.4 million artifacts (a motherlode by any standard, considering that a successful dig rarely delivers more than 20,000 points, tools, and other artifacts).

3) The footprint of the oldest known house in North America.

This is where they found the mammoth jaw
This is where they found the mammoth jaw

What’s more, while it is the largest Clovis (13,000-9,000 years ago) site on record, perhaps a more significant contribution is evidence of human life before Clovis. It flies in the face of the theory that human being arrived in the Americas by way of an ice bridge connecting Russia and Alaska. It implies coastal arrival, which would require far more sophistication than the walking theory.

The grand finale of the tour was the tent. Archaeologists are excavating down to the bedrock, where springs flow like exposed veins. The meticulous nature of science is on full display as volunteers scrape away each centimeter-deep layer with a bamboo scrapper and a plastic trowel the size of a toothbrush. Since 2007 they have been scraping away at the earth, cataloging every single artifact and separating rocks and clay out into extensively labeled buckets.


It’s always been tempting for me to scoff a little when researchers get going on the habits of prehistorical man and beast. I mean…when I consider how easy it is for me to wrongly interpret evidence of what my own two dogs have been up to…dogs I interact with every day…evidence that is abundant and fresh…and still they mystify me.

But after watching the scientific process, hearing the explanations, the forensic technology, and the sheer volume of the data, I was ready to believe them when they told me that these people lived in tiny bands of 10-12, did not inbreed, and hunted alone or in pairs. That the identical looking chert tools were in fact used for entirely different things, one a hide scraper and the other a steak knife.

A 17th-century etching of the mission church down the road.
A 17th-century etching of the mission church down the road.

What intrigued me most was our guides assertion that people are people, and have been since pre-history. They take the easy way out, they leave messes, they seek shelter, they innovate. Thinking of our ancient ancestors (well, these were not my ancestors, mine were doing who-knows-what and trying not to freeze up in the tundra) as people with similar instincts and motivations was profound. We haven’t changed that much, and one day, that fact might save our lives.

Explorer’s challenge: Five climate zones in 15 days

I pride myself on being a good packer. Or at least in having chosen an excellent convertible carry-on/backpack suitcase once upon a time. Two weeks in Africa, no sweat. Forty days in Europe, easy. This summer it was my moble mueble carrying not only clothing but plastic plates, utensils, and basic groceries as I lived three days per week at a hotel in Katy.

This last trip, however, may have stretched my trusty sidekick to its limit. He’s still going strong, zipper works, wheels roll, handle retracts. But my creative packing and his elasticity we going full throttle as I packed for my trip through Peru and Ecuador. First off, it was a business trip, so I needed to have the ability to look nice, should the situation present itself. I would also be hiking, snorkeling, city-touring, and boating. But the most complicated element:  I would be traveling through six climate zones, which I will here below grossly oversimplify.

#1 Coastal Desert

“It never rains in Lima,” said the man driving us from the airport to our hotel in Miraflores. We would hear this exact sentence 3 more times before we left Peru.

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Nonetheless, there were puddles on our terrace in the morning.

Lima’s coastal desert climate is a product of the Humboldt Current, which keeps it temperate (60s in their winter, 70s in their summer) and foggy. In my opinion, humidity makes all weather feel more extreme, so add 10 degrees to the heat index for summer and add “cold sweat” to the winter forecast. It’s a humid place, even if it rarely comes to fruition.  Most of their <2 inches of “rain” every year, like our puddles, are actually condensation from the dense fog called the garúa.  

The closest thing Lima has to crazy weather are El Niño events, when the Humboldt Current warms up and they have a heat wave. But that wasnt’ happening when we were there, so I have to say, Lima was easy to outfit.

#2 Sierra- Andean Valley

The Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu are often lumped together in terms of climate. In fact good luck finding an online resource to say otherwise. However, thanks to the windows of the Vistadome, we watched as bromelia replaces agave, opportunistically sprouting on trees and rocks, while the agave ran out of personal space. The polite and orderly mountain flora is overtaken by aggressive and lusty Amazonia.

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The true Andean Valley is ideal for agriculture. Temperate, predictably dry, then torrentially wet November-February.

Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu are exploding with life. It’s everywhere, and while rain and dryness are equally predictable, there’s an added something in the air that covers the Citadel with clouds and the rooftops with jungles of lichens.

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#3 Sierra – Andean Highlands

Again, the highlands are often lumped in with the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu, but anyone who has had to budget their long-sleeves and short sleeves know that this is simply not true.

Cusco is cold. Technically we were there in the summer time and I’m wearing a jacket in most of the pictures. Also, this has nothing to do with the climate, but the air is also terribly thin, so everything is out of whack when it comes to dealing with the climate. You’re cold, you’re panting, you’re dizzy, you’re thirsty.

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I have no idea what grows and lives naturally in Cusco, because we never left the heart of the city, or strayed from it’s concrete arteries.

#3 Selva – Amazon

This might have been our most dramatic transition. From chilly Cusco to Puerto Maldonado where the highs and humidity were in the 90s. We never stopped sweating. Fortunately, our mood was somehow improved by this, and Lewis concluded, “We’re just happier when we’re sweating.”

Never thought I’d hear that said about me.

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The Amazon is fascinating. The soil is nutrient poor, and so things grow quickly with shallow roots dog piling on top of one another. In some cases, like the banana tree, they are productive for about three years, and then they are gone. So few develop into hardwoods that our naturalist guide made a point to call attention to almost every single one we passed.

In the explosion of life, competition is fierce, and so everything is brighter and bolder than it would be in a world where there were enough of things to go around. Flowers need to attract pollinators, and you don’t waste your energy getting all magnificent if there’s no need to impress anyone. It also means that bacteria, mold, infestation and decay happen more rapidly. Everywhere you look, there is life…and it’s all fighting for the same small space.

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Four (some say five) layers, each it’s own system of relationships and bioeconomics, make up the rainforest. The herbacious floor, with life piled upon life and the detritovores coat the ground and speed decay. Next layer up are the shrubs and short trees of the shady understory, which provide shelter to much of the forest fauna. Next up is the canopy, which can only be explored by binocular or ingenuity, as it is both dense and impossibly high. The emergent layer are those survivors who hover even above the canopy, like the Jetsons.

Those last two layers, the canopy and the emergent layer are made of primary forest. Old growth. These are the treasures of the forest that have survived mold, parasite, and competition for light and nutrients. These are the mighty men of the rainforest. And they can’t be quickly replaced.

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#4 Galapagos

I had soaked through most of our warm weather clothes by the time we got to the Galapagos. Fortunately March, while it is the hottest month, is the best time for snorkeling, so I could wear my bathing suit most of the day.

But there were the morning hikes, during which I would wear slightly smelling post-Amazon explorer attire and give it 20 minutes until they were drenched anew under the unforgiving sun of 10am on Española Island.

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The Galapagos, like the coast, is dependent on the currents for it’s seasons. Humbolt, June through November, brings dry air and wetsuit weather to the waters, particularly on the western islands. Panama Current brings wet summer, peaking in March, when hiking is best reserved for the hours of 5am-9am. Which is what we did.

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Every few years El Niño comes and starves the islands, which are devoid of fresh water resources. Without rain, the volcanic rocks just bake, along with everything on them.

Being volcanic, the rocks hold almost no nutrients, and host desert plants like sesuvium and prickly pear (which impressed even this Texas girl by growing into trees…). Their iconic tree, the ever-adaptable endemic scalesia grows across the climate zones, including the highlands of Santa Cruz where it shares space with a wider variety of short but dense vegetation.

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Odd as it may seem, this remote and exotic world felt the most familiar, as far as my skin was concerned. August in San Antonio has a tropical desert element to it.

#5 Páramo

My favorite climate region was the one we visited last. Nestled between the continuous treeline and the snowline along the equatorial Andes lies the páramo. Cold and humid, pretty much year round and simultaneously home to delicate flowers, hummingbirds, and evergreens.

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The mid 60’s temperatures were welcome, as we were all out of warm weather clothes that didn’t smell like a gym floor.

We hiked all day, visited the Andean condor rehab center, and sat down to dinner fresh faced and still smelling nicely. The crops were not particularly diverse in the páramo, but the dairy production was devine, and the cows looked happy with their lot in life. They should be, at least, as the scenery in the Zuleta region is nothing short of breathtaking.

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If I had it to do over again, I’d spend two weeks in each location. No question. But as a survey, I left me utterly convinced that South America holds more natural wonders than anywhere else I’ve seen, and I hope that they know it, protect it, and stand by it.

Nature’s Hallelujah: The Galápagos

As our panga neared a formation called “The Cathedral” at Cerro Brujo on San Cristobal island, I had mixed emotions. I was in awe, watching Kicker Rock appear and disappear as the waves batted us to and fro. I was also perplexed. How could anyone have ever sailed these waters and failed to realize the beauty of places like Cerro Brujo?

Blow hole on Española
Blow hole on Española
Sunrise from a balcony on Santa Cruz
Sunrise from a balcony on Santa Cruz

During the heady moment of imperial expansion, European powers planted their flags in just about every type of soil in the world. They mined, they conquered, they spread their germs and culture with liberality across most terrains. But upon reaching the Galápagos, yet unnamed, they found nothing to mine. No one to conquer. Nothing to take home. And so they called the islands cursed.

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Baby sea lion at Punta Pitt, San Cristobal
Baby sea lion at Punta Pitt, San Cristobal

The “Islas Encantadas” of the South American pacific would suffer through the middle ages under the worldview that nature’s singular purpose was to illustrate Biblical principals to mankind. Bacon and his lot didn’t help either, because usefulness as the measure of value did not change the status of the volcanic islands, void of fresh water and edible vegetation.

Punta Pitt, San Cristobal - tuff cone formations
Punta Pitt, San Cristobal – tuff cone formations
Blue-footed boobie on Española
Blue-footed boobie on Española


Like most places deemed uninhabitable or useless by decent society, the Enchanted Islands began to collect indecent society. Pirates, felons, and women on the run found ways to inhabit the rocks, only to be murdered, run off, or defeated by the odds against survival in one place that would not yield to man’s narrow view of dominion. No one felt their efforts more strongly than the tortoises, who were the only edible game, and were thus hunted to within millimeters of extinction.

Tortoise on Santa Cruz
Tortoise on Santa Cruz

It was not until Charles Darwin stepped onto their shores in 1835 that anyone found something worth taking home: a bag of dead finches.

Darwin’s gaze dignified the islands, and anyone who now gazes at Kicker Rock glowing in the sunset owes to him one of the awesome experiences of her lifetime. And the islands that were of no value to those seeking gold, God, or glory, have become a goldmine to those witnessing the glory of God. Forget the culture wars for one moment and give thanks that we have been freed to love nature for what it is.

Kicker Rock at Sunset
Kicker Rock at Sunset
Cactus finch on Santa Cruz
Cactus finch on Santa Cruz

The Galápagos, in our time, are still not a quiescent subject to the whims and wishes of man. The National Park takes precedence over tourism, agriculture, and commerce. Guides are unapologetic in dishing out the answer we think we can buy our way out of, “No.”

A guide, protecting the sesuvium, where red-footed boobies nest
A guide, protecting the sesuvium, where red-footed boobies nest
Marine Iguana on Santa Cruz
Marine Iguana on Santa Cruz

Visions of Caribbean luxury are dashed on the tuff cones and chased far away by biting horse flies. Predictability is low where animals are not bated and tamed to earn big tips from schedule-bound tours. The heat is unforgiving in its season, and shade is found in as many places as is fresh water…none.

Marine iguanas of Española
Marine iguanas of Española

Yet, Darwin’s children flock like sea lions to those shores, seeking to understand the processes of nature, and its continual course of becoming. The islands attract those who are intrigued by an isolated ecosystem where predators are scarce and resources scarcer. Those who see a pond covered in sesuvium or a collapse crater and gasp in wonder. Those who marvel at the beaks of finches. There are some hallelujah’s only uttered in the language of science.

Los Gemelos collapse crater on Santa Cruz.
Los Gemelos collapse crater on Santa Cruz.
Sesuvium covering a pond on Santa Cruz island where tortoises seek shade.
Sesuvium covering a pond on Santa Cruz island where tortoises seek shade.

And so as much as indignance swells inside me to the rhythm of the waves beneath me, I am also glad. I am relieved that in a moment when we ruined so much, we did not ruin everything. I am relieved that those things which we did not deem worthy of our exploitation have survived to become our treasures. I rejoice for those who did not impose a tax upon every inch of Creation. Those who bound their fortunes to the flourishing of nature.

Baby sea lion on Española
Baby sea lion on Española

The conquistador spirit is alive and well, I know. Standing on the dock while Lonesome George’s remains were escorted by documentary crew off to the Smithsonian, I saw the sad face of the local girl who had grown up in the glow of his renown. She will never be able to buy the plane ticket to go to the Smithsonian to pay homage. She has lost him. Naturalist eyes are not immune to the allure of the spoils.

Lonesome George on his way to the Smithsonian.
Lonesome George on his way to the Smithsonian.

We cannot simply rest in our rapture over the rarity of this place. We must keep advocating, must keep reforming, must keep making those anti-Babel decisions that keep us off of the throne of Heaven. The Galápagos are a place where we can go to remind ourselves that we are not the measure of all things.

Red-footed booby in flight
Red-footed booby in flight

NOTE: for more light hearted detail of our trip, see the Alamo Area Master Naturalist Newsletter article.

Ode to Mass Transit

When I was about four years old, I became obsessed with the VIA bus. My great-grandmother had a plush VIA character, a stuffed bus the size of a shoebox with big friendly eyes and string hair. I loved it. That probably had a lot to do with my proletariat aspirations as much as anything.

My parents indulged me, and I can still remember how it felt to get onto the bus and discover…NO SEATBELTS! People standing up while the vehicle was in motion! It was like I had entered an alternate universe where the most ironclad laws of childhood—my mother told us that if we didn’t wear our seatbelts that the police would take us away—were flagrantly disregarded. Thrilling.

The Tube
The Tube is a great place for taking clever pictures with friends.

My cousin and I rode the bus with my father from our house in Alamo Heights all the way down Broadway to the Witte Museum (approximately 1.5 miles), carrying our brown paper bags with hand-turkeys drawn on the front. I think they had snacks in them, you know, for the journey. My mom followed behind in the Jeep to bring us back home after a museum visit. It was such a lovely, public day in my young life.

When my editor at the Rivard Report sent me to cover the public meeting held by my once-idolized VIA Metropolitan Transit, I thought it would be a pretty dry story. Who could object to modern streetcars? Plenty of people, it turns out. The opposition has been vocal, and I’m up to my ribs in 20 page position papers, research documents, rebuttals, rebuttals to rebuttals.

Sometimes we don’t realize we’re passionate about something until we’re up to our ribs in the mud-lolly. These days, I am up to my ribs in mass transit mire.

So I’ve had to answer the question: what is it about public transport that I am so “for?” Not “what is your best argument ” But rather, what’s behind the logic?

Boarding the Seattle light rail.
Boarding the Seattle light rail, which happened to be scattered with feathers and sequins that day. Gay pride parade downtown. Never would have known if it hadn’t been for the shared space of the railcar.

I am for safety

No matter which way you shake it, roads are dangerous places! Especially with me and people like me driving on them. Every person opposing the streetcar should have to spend an afternoon with me in rush hour traffic. It will make you hope there’s a God and vehemently support not just public transport, but mandatory public transport.

And you know I’m not the worst one.

I am for planned routes

The only time I’m more dangerous than when I’m driving is when I’m lost driving.

In London, I rode the incredibly expensive tube for as long as it took to get oriented before switching to the iconic red, double-decker 80p buses for the sake of economy. But whenever I was going to a new part of town, I took the tube because there was no mistaking where you were heading, and where you were to disembark.

The clarity of rail, the consistency and comfort of knowing that every train stopping at this platform is going one of two clearly marked places, that put my lost or foreign heart at ease even in the most unreadable of cities.  Like London, Paris, and Rome. All of which seem to have been designed in a Yahtzee cup.

I am for transportation alternatives

Making car travel essential to getting around efficiently is the most irresponsible thing we can do as a society. There’s the bad drivers, the oil dependence, the pollution, the crowding.

More fun on the tube
More fun on the tube. I probably germed-up that handrail there.

But even within mass transit systems, there something to be said for alternatives. I lived in London for a year without a car, and utilized the full force of TFL (Transport for London).

Docklands Light Rail, the tube, trains to Gatwick, shuttles to Stanstead. You name it, I did it. I caught a lot of colds, because kids lick things on public transport. I had my bum grabbed more than once by handsy little boys. But as cruel as it could be, I was equally cruel to mass transit.

I vomited on the night bus.

I fare hopped on the Docklands Light Rail.

I sneezed in my hand and didn’t use hand sanitizer before grabbing the handrail on the tube.

Public transit is where we all pile in and hope that the person next to us is not contagious (socially or medically), and we discover how communicable the human condition can be. There are thousands of opportunities to be the best of yourself (offer the seat to the lady with the screaming infant), or the worst of your self, (turn up your iGadget so loud that other passengers can hear Marcus Mumford deafening you for life and glare at the screaming infant, as though it asked to be transported on the Typhoid Express in the middle of cold season).

I am for streetcars

The first time I used a modern streetcar to get around a city, I was alone in Munich, needing very much to get to the US Embassy (not nearly as exciting as it sounds). My train arrived in town around lunch time, and without speaking a word of German in a pre-iPhone world I was in and out of the Embassy by 2:30pm, with time to visit a hoffbrau before catching the afternoon train out. And it’s okay that I hit the hoffbrau because I wasn’t driving!  All on a modern streetcar.

VIA meeting where citizens proposed streetcar routes. It was hard to pick!
VIA meeting where citizens proposed streetcar routes. It was hard to pick from all the places we no longer wish to drive and park!

The next time I used a street car I was in Sarajevo (Post-war Bosnia. Surely San Antonio is ready to surpass the urban infrastructure of Post-war Bosnia…). I had one afternoon in which to take in the markets and bridges of the war torn Balkan capital. So I walked to a platform next to an overhead cable stretching in the right direction. I got on the steetcar, and I enjoyed an afternoon ogling mortar damage and buying bullet casings with “Bosnia” etched into the side. I say “enjoyed,” but I didn’t really like Sarajevo. It had very little to do with the city itself, and nothing to do with the streetcars. This was definitely the high point of the trip.

“Gift-wrapping my principles”

Years ago, I started giving “ethical gifts.”

Calling them that sort of implies that there is something unethical about gadgets, clothing, and books. As though if it wasn’t made by female entrepreneurs in Sudan then it must have been made in a sweat shop in China. Of course, seeing as how I have a Banana Republic Visa Card, if I really touted that shopping was evil, I would be the biggest hypocrite in the world. I’d be saying, essentially, “I buy myself whatever I want all year long, so that I can use the money I would spend on your gift for something tax deductible.”

Calling them “ethical gifts” was really my way of saying, “This gift was intended to bless you, and the world…well, really more just the world, and not so much you…because it’s a notebook made out of elephant poo.” (For the record the poo notebooks were among the more pragmatic purchases.)

My family is great, and they have always gotten the true spirit of my ethical gifts: for Jesus’s birthday, what he really wants is for us to love people more than stuff. They’ve even done some ethical shopping themselves, which has been fun.

But still I’d always have this dilemma. Because Jesus also loves my family, and giving them gifts is a good thing. So do I get them something that says, “I love you and thought you’d love this?” Or get them something that says, “I think Christmas is grossly over commercialized and we desperately need to remember that Jesus’s birth is not about stuff and gluttony?” It was really hard to find things that said both…especially on my budget. I’d love to get everyone gorgeous hand woven tapestries and metal work jewelry, but part of my being ethical at Christmas is not going into debt over it. Plus…have you ever tried to find “ethical” men’s gifts? It’s really hard. The men in my life are not scarf-wearers.

Some years everyone in my family got goats. Or rather, someone else received a goat purchased with the money I would have spent on buying my family members something else. One year they all got trees planted in their names. Such a big hit with kids…no. It’s not.

Some years were a hybrid. I did what I could and then shopped on Etsy “to support the artists.” Or I gave things loosely environmentally friendly. One year during the recession I gave gifts “to support small businesses.”

So this year, rather than hunt around for the perfect ethical gift with just the right balance of actual appeal and world-saving, I went back to my old ways. I still believe that Christmas is over-commercialized. I still cringe at the sentimentality and excess. But this year, I just decided to try really hard to show my love to my family by buying things they might like. Not the way they like volunteering (which they do! A lot!). But in a way they like stuff that they like.

Next year, they’ll probably all get shares of a milk cow.

But for this year, I returned to full-throttle Christmas shopping, and yes, I felt weird about it. SO, family, I hope you enjoy your presents. There’s a little piece of my principles in each box.

(“Gift-wrapping My Principles” is the holiday remix of the hit song “Alone in My Principles” by Jimmy Mattingly)

Luxury, poverty, and the stories we need to hear

It was 2006, and I was fidgety at the table in the Hilton Tower Hotel in Kampala, Uganda. Across from me was an MP’s daughter and a businessman who would, in the next few years, attempt a run at the presidency. As Elizabeth and David chattered on about politics, technical training, and cultural events, I ricocheted between excitement and anxiety. Excitement because Elizabeth and David were discussing ideas that were challenging and potentially vital for their country. Anxiety because they were both wealthy, educated, healthy people. They didn’t need me.

Later, I was expressing this anxiety to the clever Ugandan responsible for my Hilton cocktail hour. I told him that I wasn’t sure how I was going to tell people back to the USA that my time in “darkest Africa” had evolved into brainstorming over drinks instead of pounding the orphanage circuit. At the heart of the conflict, I realized, was my millennial generation obsession with feeling like a contributor. My generation wants to know they are making a difference.

“But that’s what we need from you,” he said, “There are people better suited to work in the slums: doctors, lawyers, contractors, etc. We want you to go home and tell about your experience that was different from the other stories they’ve heard. We want people to believe in the good things that are happening here.” His knowing look completed that last sentence as if to say, even if Americans are not the ones doing them.

Apparently I was not alone in my anxiety. In a recent interview on the TED radio hour on NPR, Ugandan journalist Andrew Mwenda said, “The rich countries are attracted to Africa’s poverty rather than its wealth, and in the process they end up subsidizing our failures rather than rewarding our accomplishments.” Find the full interview here.

The dots of life have a providential way of connecting sometimes. Moving home to San Antonio felt like a huge departure from the far-flung path I had chased in academic and philanthropic pursuits, but the pull was undeniable. I was sandwiched between another academic research trip to Kampala, Uganda and a genocide-scholar conference in Sarajevo, Bosnia, and I clearly remember the day walking over Blackfriars Bridge in London and saying to a friend: “I think I just need to move home.”

At that point I figured that development, postcolonial theory, and the political economy of representation would fade into my background like high school chemistry. But I was in for a refresher course.

The San Antonio I came home to was rippling with discussion on history, progress, race relations, and neighborhood identity. The city where my family has lived for generations is now continuing my education, even as I re-encounter Africa, this time from a whole new angle.

Flash forward to the office of the President of Ker and Downey, a luxury travel company that specializes in African safaris. Their itineraries are some of the most exclusive and luxurious in the world. After looking at my resume and quizzing me about my time in Africa on academic, missional, and philanthropic business, David Marek said, “Are you going to be able to handle the wealth of our clients and the way they want to experience Africa?”

An excellent question, Mr. Marek.

I’m an unlikely candidate for accommodating special dietary requests and VIP services. However, as a student of human nature I do know one thing: you cannot love what you do not know.

In graduate school we often talked about “compassion fatigue” generated by the countless adds for NGOs that show the sad eyes and protruding ribs of sub-Saharan children.  When a person sees one million hands reaching up for help and freezes knowing that they cannot help them all, that is compassion fatigue.

But how much more stamina does my compassion have for the places that I love? The poverty within the African continent is real, and it’s not something that we should ignore, choosing only to focus on the majesty and rarity of the Big Five or the South African winelands. But really, can you truly fall in love with a place and not be moved by its gaping wounds? Ker and Downey would say “no.” After 30 years of business on the continent, David Marek is a crusader for various philanthropies, even involving stateside networks in a campaign to provide mosquito nets and clothing to the people of Africa. Every Ker and Downey trip pays tangible homage to the great need accompanying the grandeur.

I feel the same way about San Antonio, a city of many resources and many needs. When we millennials move into town, we need to be fully aware of our place and time. We cannot just come to play, but we cannot just come to help either.  Living in a city requires give and take. Appreciation and generosity.

In the same TED radio hour on NPR, Chimamanda Adichie cautioned against only listening to one story. I would broaden that to one discourse, made up of thousands of stories with one message. We need to hear the diversity of stories. The safari story can bond a heart to Africa as can the medical relief story. It is at the intersection of these experiences that we begin to understand Africa as a real place, not a G8 line item or a safari photo montage.  Africans are people, not statistics, whether they are sitting at the Hilton or fleeing a famine.

When I think about my experiences in Kampala, Bosnia, Los Angeles, and London, I immediately think about my experience in San Antonio. I think about the shroud of mystery over the inner city when I was growing up . Then I think of the recent hype surrounding Dignowity Hill and the various neighborhoods south of downtown. I hear the voices from my academic career joining the critics of inner-city development, calling it gentrification.

San Antonio’s urban core is part of a global conversation on change. The discourses are diversifying. Areas are being shown off and sought after, sometimes for what was already there, and sometimes for what is changing. Voices of preservation are mingling with voices of progress. It’s not a perfect process. We can all think of at least one example of someone who has been overlooked or frustrated by the process.

We need to have these conversations. The people who have lived in the areas for generations and the people seeking to move in and be part of the neighborhood have a lot to offer each other. Perhaps the most valuable gift is that of their story and the way those stories draw us out of our siloes and into community. In the end, I think that it will be this multitude of stories that makes San Antonio stand out among the major American cities as an incredibly stimulating place to live.