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Highlights of 2015 and hello 2016 :)

Last year was a lot of hard work and unexpected playful interactions when I least expected it. The highs were pretty high and totally awesome and the low points felt bottomless. My resolution for 2015 were several but the one’s that I did manage to stick to stood me in good stead.

I lost people in 2015 – one of them was a very good friend who was taken from us too soon. I still can’t speak of Cesare without tearing up, even when I laugh, there’s a deep sigh that comes up unbidden. I have lost people when I stuck to my resolution to treat people as they treat me. Some loved it, some hated it. It simplified my life. I lost the one’s who drag me down far more often then they pick me up.

2015 was the year that I learnt the meaning of what it means to be family. Most of us define the word family by the people we are related to by blood or marriage. Instead I learnt the following:

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Loyalty, honesty, integrity – in everything that I do, every relationship that I develop whether in my career or personal life, in my actions, words and thoughts continue to remain my guiding stars.

Through out the year as people and opportunities walked in and out of my life, I discovered that the one’s who genuinely care and want me in their lives will always prioritize and make time for me. My one month of working in Ethiopia gave me not only invaluable work experience, a totally different perspective on the role of aid in developing economies but also a family and new friends and colleagues whom I enjoyed immensely.

While 2015 ended in a bittersweet note, looking back there is nothing that I would do differently. In each moment I had made the best possible decisions, drew my line in the sand and stuck to my guns where necessary and it is that integrity and faith in choosing what is right that allows me to move forward without looking back. Knowing that I have done my best, given my best and I deserve the best.

I look forward to 2016 because this life is an endless journey were the scenery is constantly changing and along with the props, the actors change, bringing in new perspectives, lessons, knowledge, wisdom and yes, even love. There will be new countries to see, new cultures to discover, new cuisines to try, new friends to make, new ways of thinking that will challenge my current one’s, ideas to discover, challenges to conquer and victories to celebrate. I look forward to the highs and lows and while the first 3 months are already promising me to be hectic, full of travels and new experiences and learning’s, here’s a nod off to the highlights of 2015 🙂

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Change: are you ready for it?

Respite in nature

This long weekend, I did something I hadn’t attempted before. I went hiking up a trail to reach a lake, at 1072 ft above sea level. The short hike of 1.5 hours, took me almost 4 hours. Up and down the mountains, scurrying from one to the other, picking our way around trails washed away by landslides, trying not to fall into the abyss as we gingerly attempt to find strong footholds, I watched the locals in pure awe as they went up and down, sure footed, nearly sprinting through the trail. We were left in their trail dust and I kept falling further behind from the group. My head was buzzing, my heart had felt like it would burst through any moment. In those moments, I felt the effect of nearly two decades of smoking, more acutely then I had ever felt before. Towards the end, very close to our destination, I stood on a ledge, unable to take one more step, unwilling to tumble into the abyss, I leaned on my stick as I tried to make up my mind on whether I wanted to throw up or lie down in a place I could not even stand properly. I almost gave up right there.

And I remembered  then – it’s darkest right before the sun rises. In the midst of the chaos of life, we become blinded to it’s blessings. 

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Once we reached the village and soaked ourselves in the lake, I could feel myself relaxing and settling into my new surroundings. We went to bed early only to wake up 3 hours later. The village was quiet, all lights were off and yet it was bathed in silver moonlight. I took a walk through the valley, admiring the full moon, a sky full of stars, the cleanliness and quiet of village life. My group asked me the next day if I had been afraid.

And I realized something else – I am wary of people, not nature or anything that is part of it. 

Boga Lake, Bandarban.

Boga Lake, Bandarban.

I stayed put the next day while a major part of the group hiked up higher to the 5th highest peak in Bangladesh. I went for a walk through the village, photographing children, watching people at work, admiring the serene beauty of my surroundings. I couldn’t help but notice that the children of the village were wary of us, outsiders. We had descended on them like locusts. Large groups had arrived that morning, we were loud, obnoxious and littered everywhere. A clean village turned dirty within a minutes. The local shop keepers watched us from a distance, cleaning up their parcel of land as soon as groups moved on. We had drifted so far from nature, from any sense of belonging that we had no problem polluting our environment wherever we went.

And I knew the reason I am wary of people – we are unaware, unconscious, inconsiderate of anything other than our need to consume and our greed for more. 

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As I walked on, a lady on a loom caught my eye, we smiled at each other and I joined her on her veranda. It was mid-day by then and already quite hot and humid, a few minutes after I joined her, she muttered something and got off her loom and went inside. I sat on the veranda wondering if I had somehow offended or disturbed her with my presence. For the few minutes that I was left alone, I debated slinking back to where I came from, ashamed of what I considered to be an intrusion. But she returned with a drink of water and a bunch of bananas. It was probably what she had at hand to offer, as she indicated that I should eat and drink, I settled down again into enjoying our mutual company. A few minutes later, she took the loom apart and wrapped it up and once again I wondered if I should leave. But an elderly lady came by and helped her set up another loom, this time with bright yarns of green and red, she was going to weave another shawl. I sat on the floor, part of her scene, trying to stay out of her way as I watched their hands deftly set up the yarns in place. The repeated motion was soothing, the dedication and attention to detail felt like meditation.

They chatted quietly between themselves and smiled at me while pointing for me to have more water or banana. A man passing by joined us and she repeated the same ritual, went inside to get him a drink of water and more bananas. He could speak my language, so we struck up a conversation. The ladies were curious and had quite a few questions – we traded answers back and forth, smiling, giggling as we shared our lives in languages we do not speak. Her neighbors joined us and five more kids. The man left, he was going to walk back to his village and it would take him the rest of the day, she offered him more bananas to take for the way. I sat there for nearly an hour longer, the ladies around me talking, the kids playing, slowly relaxing in my presence. When they first arrived, they stayed out of reach, as they relaxed and lost themselves in play, they inched closer, until they started initiating games with me.

I had not remembered to ask permission to take photographs when the man was there, so I kept my camera closed. Recording the moment in memory. A group of ladies and their children, enjoying a lazy afternoon, working, weaving, catching up with each other and watching over their kids. An hour later, I decided to make my way back to the house I was staying at, as I waved goodbye, the kids waved back and the ladies smiled.

On the way back, I stopped to admire two kids playing, I took a picture of them, one turned around immediately and said ‘no’. I apologized as I showed them the picture. The other one had been playing on the veranda, she said ‘yes, more picture’, so I took a couple more. Each time I snapped a pic and showed them, they giggled.

And I learnt once again – We are all strangers in a strange land, until we stop, smile and acknowledge each other’s presence. Hospitality is a state of mind, not material status. Trust must be gained and respect offered if we are to coexist in peace and tranquility with each other.

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As I returned back to the home we were staying in, the lady of the house offered us lunch. I am not a big fan of vegetables but that fresh vegetarian meal was so delicious that I took three more helpings. She was obviously pleased that we were enjoying her meal and we lingered afterwards chatting, drinking tea, trading more questions back and forth. Her husband came by and teasingly asked us whether we think that his sweetheart is more beautiful then him, she said something to him in their own language and they lovingly teased each other before he turned around to tell us that he too had been very handsome in his young years. The couple has 3 children, two of whom are studying here in my city, the youngest is living with them in the village. They run the home-stay during tourist season to make extra money while the rest of the year is spent in agriculture, running their little shop and handicraft sale. They have tried to diversify their income base to give their children an easier life then what they had.

People and their resilience continue to surprise me. For them the market is a day’s walk away, for others it can take up to 2 days. The village people rarely get sick, but they think it’s partly because they have no doctor in the village and  the closest health complex would take a day to reach on foot. I think it has more to do with their environment. Ingredients are fresh, they drink water from the mountain springs, the air is clean and they have close to zero carbon emission. It’s one of the purest, cleanest places I have been to in this country. They have an innate sense of belonging in nature, a respect for nature that is missing in most of us city folk. Their bond with each other and their community strong, everyone looking after each other.

And I realized that our dissonance lies in our disconnection – from each other, from nature, from having lost our sense of community or belonging. In the cities, we don’t know our neighbors, we are so busy rushing from one task to another, we rarely stop to check on the people around us. In our greed for more, we hustle and we forget to slow down, to enjoy the moments that make up our day, with the people we share our hours with. Our children no longer has childhood of free play and easy camaraderie with fellow playmates. It’s scheduled and supervised as we control every moment of their lives.

I used to travel and find pieces of my soul in far flung places. This time when I traveled, I learnt to shed the excess baggage of expectations, vanity, ego.

I learnt to ask for help as I gasped my way through mountain trails.

I learnt to pace myself and respect my ability to get things done in my own time.

I learnt the meaning of “wabi-sabi” through witnessing it first hand among the tribe we lived with.

I settled into the art of letting go of expectations of how things should be and instead admire what is.

I learnt that digital detox is not about being off from network but resisting the urge & expectation to be hitched to a digital leash.

Wasichu vs. Altruism and the state of our planet

Wasichu

The first people who lived on the northern plains of what today is the United States called themselves “Lakota,” meaning “the people,” a word which provides the semantic basis for Dakota. The first European people to meet the Lakota called them “Sioux,” a contraction of Nadowessioux, a now-archaic French-Canadian word meaning “snake” or enemy.

The Lakota also used the metaphor to describe the newcomers. It was Wasi’chu, which means “takes the fat,” or “greedy person.” Within the modern Indian movement, Wasi’chu has come to mean those corporations and individuals, with their governmental accomplices, which continue to covet Indian lives, land, and resources for private profit.

Wasi’chu does not describe a race; it describes a state of mind.

Wasi’chu is also a human condition based on inhumanity, racism, and exploitation. It is a sickness, a seemingly incurable and contagious disease which begot the ever advancing society of the West. If we do not control it, this disease will surely be the basis for what may be the last of the continuing wars against the Native American people.

…excerpt from Wasi’chu, The Continuing Indian Wars,
Bruce Johansen and Robert Maestas
with an introduction by John Redhouse

Aaron Huey set out to photograph poverty in America, but somewhere in his quest, he ended up in the Lakota Indian reservation and the focus of his photography changed. In this impassioned Ted Talk  he talks about something that has been and is still going on all over the world – the process of how history is rewritten by the victor – the original immigrants and how the defeated are truly wiped out. In poverty, ignorance, systematic exclusion & persecution. He talks about how our collective apathy leads to us repeating the same mistakes, silently witnessing destruction of entire nations, with an unapologetic shrugging of our shoulders in the dark, absolving ourselves of any and all responsibility, while we stand in the side lines questioning – “My God what are these people doing to themselves? they are killing themselves”.

History repeats itself in today’s world and perhaps we are doomed to it for all eternity because we refuse to become wise to our “Wasichu” ways. After all, the survival of the fittest & strongest rules is the dominant philosophy of every day lives and choices, while ‘altruism’ lies dead on our wayside. It’s the reason why climate change and it’s very real impact on societies who are drowning now still need to be debated by nations haggling over climate credits and fund allocations.

Its the reason entire wars can be launched in the name of democracy, saving humanity, giving dignity to oppressed people or fighting terrorism / fundamentalists – pick whichever option is suitable to sway the majority of voters. Once the troops are on the ground, work out contracts for rebuilding, for mining, for extractions of precious resources and award them to your fellow countrymen, in contracts with corporations, negotiated behind closed doors.

We conveniently forget that the very people who are supposed to be saved are the one’s being bombed, until nothing is left and they are forced to move. Then we deny these very people, any human dignity or consideration. We leave them on boats to die. We watch them wash ashore – dead. We rally and cry out against this encroachment on our hard-earned easy life. We brand them as economic burdens, pariahs, each country doing it’s best to stem the flow, to close its borders, to shove off as many as possible to its neighbors to share the burden.

We do the same here, we do it with the tribes in the hill tracts. We sign treaties, we violate them, we flood their lands with new settlers of the dominant community. We have no option – we are too big in numbers, we need land to farm, they don’t know how to manage their communal properties. They are backwards and inefficient and in desperate need of our technologies, health system, and education designed to brainwash and indoctrinate children into accepting authorities without question. We award quotas for college and university education, jobs in the civil service. We know they are not going to make it because the systematic persecution is too great. But we sugar coat the truth, we extend hands in friendship and with promises of greater economic prosperity. We destroy lives, culture, history, language and we wipe out anyone trying to hold on to an identity that doesn’t blend in with the ones we want to establish.

The Australians did it with the aborigines, or perhaps I should say that the original immigrants from the British Empire to Australia did it. They did to the Maoris in New Zealand, who by the way, are still fighting for their lands and their rights in the court systems. The Spanish did it to the Incas – wiped out. We have been doing it over and over and over again. We wipe out indigenous population, we wipe out age-old wisdom, we destroy the very fabric of the society. We install progress, democracy, individual wealth economies, we are even wiping out the earth with our fast resource depletion.

Then we sit back and question, puzzle over and research into why there is so much strife and disorder in this world. Why and how we are destroying the only planet that we have to live in. Why and how we do not recognize, refuse to acknowledge, bury our heads in the sand, when it comes to seeing the very real threat of the imbalance we have created in our ecosystem. We wring our hands as we bemoan the lack of human connections that lead to school children shooting up their classmates. We hold candle light vigil over great injustices and inhumane incidents of crime and torture wrought on members of our societies. We question where and how we lost our humanity, whether we had it, or can ever hope to salvage it.

What are we doing to ourselves?

The power in letting go of regret

Regret… now that’s an emotion that we are ALL familiar with, some perhaps more than others. Unless you are a sociopath, in which case you do not have the brain function necessary to feel the emotions associated with ‘regret’. So anyway, I did a quick search on this blog and turns out I have written exactly eight posts were I have tagged ‘regret’ as a key word. It’s a word that I have associated with coming out stronger from adversary, in making life choices, with death, with honesty, with having more than others – a myriad of situations which on the surface are not related to each other.

But looking at these posts, basically I have associated it with any situations where I felt there was a choice (ok, death was not by choice but maybe I have survivor’s guilt). So even though we love the feeling of having options – unfortunately, the minute we make the choice – any choice (it really doesn’t matter what we choose) – we immediately open ourselves to the very real possibility of experiencing regret – for not picking the option we didn’t choose.

I was watching the movie “About Time” last weekend, and the main character in it reaches the age of 21 and discovers that part of his inheritance is the ability to time travel. Now I tried imagining that given this ability there would be events in my past that I would choose to erase (trust me, I have a vivid imagination). The thing is, just like in the movie, if the butterfly effects of things changed means that I don’t meet certain people, experience certain situations, fundamentally, who I am, would change. And surprisingly it turns out THAT is a choice that I am not willing to make.

I like me, I am me because of everything that has happened to me, through the years, with the people, in places and situations, which at the time I had thought were the worst thing that can possibly happen. Yet, there I was, slapped on the face with the realization that I don’t want to lose or change who I am.

You know what that means? I don’t.

I think it might mean that I am letting go of the regret I had felt at the decisions I had made through life. That I had somehow made peace with my choices. Now knowing me, before I make any choice, I do weight them on a scale (I am a Libra so that figures my obsession with the scale thingy). I do the whole exercise of columns and rows of alternate scenarios and in most cases, I had chosen, what I believed at the time, to be the best possible option/choice. I can be quite obsessive with having a plan A (for action) and back up plan B, C, D… you get the picture.

Now, if you watch the Ted Talk below you will notice that at 6.15, she outlines what people regret the most – or rather the choices that people regret the most and funnily enough these are related to – education, career, romance, parenting, self, leisure, finance, family, health, friends, spirituality and community – in exactly that descending order. And that basically means that we most regret the things where we feel that we had a choice and we could’ve chosen something else. But what if like me, you get to a point, where you realize that at the moment of choosing, you had weighted all your options and you had made the best possible choice you can?

Would you still then hold on to regret? Or would you let it go?

So, here’s what I am going to be doing…. I am going to get myself tattooed this weekend and then be damn happy that I at least had the courage to do something that I had always wanted to get done. And if I regret my tattoos, then I guess I will learn to love my imperfect flawed creation 😉

The lesson that I ultimately learned from my tattoo and that I want to leave you with today is this: We need to learn to love the flawed, imperfect things that we create and to forgive ourselves for creating them. Regret doesn’t remind us that we did badly. It reminds us that we know we can do better.

BTW, hindsight is always 20/20, so don’t bother looking back.. just keep moving forward 🙂

 

 

The ability to be vulnerable

Brene Brown is a social researcher who thought she was researching “connection”. You know the thing that holds us together? whether its society, community, family, work or relationship between two people. It doesn’t matter if you are an extrovert or an introvert, all of us needs connections, a sense of belonging, a sense of self-worth which is intrinsically related to our well-being. Take this sense away and each person is an island of desolation. Keep it alive and you are part of a much wider picture and together you are beautiful.

So there she was starting what she thought was going to be a one year research, except that it turned into a six-year stint, during which her assumptions were thrown right out the window and at one point, she was forced to seek out a therapist because she was struggling with accepting the result that was staring at her on the face “Vulnerability”. The people with a strong sense of belonging, of self-worth, were the people who were willing to be Vulnerable. Now admittedly that’s scary. It scares me. I am so good at being self-sufficient and strong that the idea of allowing myself to be vulnerable to or with another person frankly gives me the heebie-jeebies. I am not sure if it’s something that I am willing to do deliberately.

So maybe this should go on the list of things to which I challenge myself over the next four months of this year …. open myself up to the possibility of being vulnerable – knowing full well that it’s going to be damn uncomfortable and freaking scary. Now let’s see how that goes 🙂

Brené Brown: The power of vulnerability

The other thing that they had in common was this: They fully embraced vulnerability. They believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful. They didn’t talk about vulnerability being comfortable,nor did they really talk about it being excruciating — as I had heard it earlier in the shame interviewing.They just talked about it being necessary. They talked about the willingness to say, “I love you” first … the willingness to do something where there are no guarantees … the willingness to breathe through waiting for the doctor to call after your mammogram. They’re willing to invest in a relationship that may or may not work out. They thought this was fundamental.

I personally thought it was betrayal. I could not believe I had pledged allegiance to research, where our job — you know, the definition of research is to control and predict, to study phenomena for the explicit reason to control and predict. And now my mission to control and predict had turned up the answer that the way to live is with vulnerability and to stop controlling and predicting. This led to a little breakdown — which actually looked more like this.  And it did.

……..She said, “What’s going on?” And this is a therapist who sees therapists, because we have to go to those, because their B.S. meters are good.  And so I said, “Here’s the thing, I’m struggling.” And she said, “What’s the struggle?” And I said, “Well, I have a vulnerability issue. And I know that vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love. And I think I have a problem, and I need some help.” And I said, “But here’s the thing: no family stuff, no childhood shit. I just need some strategies.” So she goes like this. And then I said, “It’s bad, right?” And she said, “It’s neither good nor bad. It just is what it is.” And I said, “Oh my God, this is going to suck.”

 

 

The beauty that connects us

In this awesome Ted Talk photographer Jimmy Nelson talks about his journey to photograph tribal people around the world. The lessons he learnt and  how he was affected as a person by the interactions he engaged in. Well worth the 17 minutes to watch this talk 🙂

When Jimmy Nelson traveled to Siberia to photograph the Chukchi people, elders told him: “You cannot photograph us. You have to wait, you have to wait until you get to know us, you have to wait until you understand us.” In this gorgeously photo-filled talk, join Nelson’s quest to understand — the world, other people, himself — by making astonishing portraits of the world’s vanishing tribes and cultures.

What does it take to brighten a day?

What will it take to brighten your day today? A smile, a hug, a friend, a random act of kindness?

The good thing about most of these are that you cannot give one without getting one.

When I hug my friends, I get a hug in return.

When I smile and tease my friends, I get laughter in return.

When I love without calculating whether the love will be returned and how much, I get loved in return.

There’s a bunch of street kids near my university who seems to have figured out something quite well. They pick up trash and trade in garbage. In their line of work, where they exist in the fringe of society, in the space where most people are trying to avoid looking them in the eye or if they do, they don’t know how to react. I have seen them being treated with disdain, pity and a plethora of emotions which we would never consciously expose our children to. These are kids in the age range of 5 to 10 years old.

Not my group of kids but similar 🙂 Photo credit goes to my wonderful colleague, Carel de Groot. He sees beauty in the mundane and does a wonderful job of capturing the human spirit 🙂

What they seem to have figured out is that kindness among themselves work to keep them boosted above their drudgery. Last year, I refused to hand out money to this kid who came around begging. Instead I offered to buy him what I was eating – a chicken roll and a soda. He gleefully accepted but then went around to tell his other friends that the crazy lady at the shop was buying kids food. So next thing I know, I am swamped in this mêlée of kids, 3 deep, smiling at me and talking all over each other.

This kid could’ve taken his food, stayed right where he was and relished it. Instead he went and called his friends. If I had refused, he would’ve shared it with his buddies. But he wasn’t going to eat it alone. For them it was a treat they didn’t often get. The requests ranged from beef roll, chicken roll to egg roll. Most of the kids chose juice over soda, which was really amazing.

What struck me was that they were willing to share, even though they didn’t have much to begin with. They called on each other to share this good fortune (crazy lady doesn’t come by too often apparently). They knew what they wanted and they really enjoyed the moment, the food and each other’s generosity.

 

The love that buoys over everything else 🙂 Photo credit: Carel de Groot

 

In case you are wondering – the food for the entire team costs me less than what it would’ve cost to take my son out to KFC. And they enjoyed it far more than my son would’ve. The contrast was so stark, it was humbling. My son takes it as his right to eat out in places like Pizza Hut, Pizza Inn, KFC, etc on a regular basis, at his whim. He never thinks of the food, cost or the experience, because its no less than what he expects.

That’s the difference between what we think we can do and what we can actually do.

It still doesn’t cost me much to feed these kids who line up whenever they see me on a break outside the university. They wait patiently to see if I would offer to feed them whatever I was eating, not clamouring, not demanding, just waiting. Yesterday I shared my ‘chotpoti’ (a popular street food) with a five-year old. He was so quiet from the rebuffs of life that he didn’t say anything when I asked him if he would like some. He nodded his head and stood waiting with his sack over his shoulder. As I pushed a tool towards him for him to sit down, I couldn’t help noticing his eyes  – they were sad, quiet, muted. When his plate was served, he picked gingerly at the shaved eggs dusted on top and savoured every bite of it. We sat side by side, eating in silence.

For me this was the moment that brightened my day. A random act of kindness, accepted by a child, who consented in silence to share that moment.

 

 

The spirit of the kids 🙂 Photo Credit: Carel de Groot

 

Getting your priorities right

If you have ever struggled with getting your priorities right…

If you have woken up too many mornings wondering how you will drag yourself through the day…

If you have looked at your life thinking I need to change something but I don’t know where to start…

Then this Ted Talk is for you 🙂

You can read the full transcript here.

I am going on a digital detox week :)

Tomorrow will mark the beginning of my digital detox week. It will be a challenge to unplug completely but at the same time, if I am being honest, I have to admit I am looking forward to it.

I want to be there for the people who want me to be there in their life, to witness their life being played out.

I want to hold hands for my mom who is going through a cataract operation tomorrow and will be recuperating at my place.

I want to sit in front of actual people and have long conversations over cups of tea without being interrupted.

I want to hold a book and read it cover to cover without getting distracted by the myriad of screens that surround me.

I want to write, both digitally (offline) and in good old fashion paper with pen, without being distracted by popping notifications on social media.

I want to be there, physically and mentally, present … without an email, call or sms waiting to be answered.. hanging in the back of my head.

I want time to meditate, be mindfully present and to be grateful for this wonderful life that I have been blessed with.

 

 

Can you disconnect? and if you did take up the challenge – what would you do? or not do? 😉

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