Featured Writing

A Handicapped Society: Una Sociedad Discapacitada

A couple of days ago, a story made the rounds in Panama regarding a man who videotaped a bus driver refusing to pick up a person in a wheelchair. The short video starts with the man taping the bus driver, who is angry she is being taped. The man argues that the person in the wheelchair is entitled to passage, same as anyone else. Buses in Panama have these sad excuses of ‘ramps’ that have to be manually deployed by the drivers. These ramps are too steep for anyone in a wheelchair, and are often rusted and broken. It’s not just the buses — Panama has huge infrastructure problems for those with mobility issues, most notably the terrible sidewalks.

The video was picked up by a few news outlets, and of course, many rose up in outrage toward the bus driver, demanding she be fired. But they looked passed the fact that no one else on the bus stood up for the man in the wheelchair. In fact, toward the end of the video, another male passenger comes up to the man tapping the video, and seems to asks him to stop taping and get off the bus. Everyone else remained quietly seated.

I found the video thorough the website of a young man from Panama called Juanpi, who uses a wheelchair. He’s trying to bring awareness to the infrastructure issues by inviting politician and public figures to navigate a couple blocks of the city in a wheelchair. Inevitably, everyone realizes that it’s almost impossible for people with mobility issues to get around the city.

I felt compelled to write him a note on my thoughts because this is an issue that affects my family closely.

Estoy completamente horrorizada por el video. Y yo tengo un hermano con discapacidad, así que me molesta grandemente. Pero no estoy de acuerdo con los que dicen que hay que botar a la conductora. Como sociedad, le tenemos un deber a los discapacitados de proveer una infraestructura con la cual ellos se puedan desplazar independientemente. Y la triste realidad es que por generaciones no hemos echo de esto una prioridad. Los discapacitados, en Panamá, no son considerados cuando se construyen los proyectos, las aceras, cuando se compran buses con rampas ridículas que no sirven de nada. El gobierno pasa leyes, pero las enforza? Si esa es la actitud de el gobierno, y las compañías en general, entonces no es sorpresa que la conductora se comporte de una manera tan desagradable. Ella ha vivido toda su vida en una sociedad que trata a los discapacitados como ciudadanos de segunda clase. Ella dirá: si al gobierno o la compañía no le importa, porque me tiene que importar a mi? Yo, por supuesto no estoy de acuerdo, pero admitamos que desafiar convenciones establecidas por toda la vida no es fácil, especialmente para personas que les falta educación y cultura (no digo esto como insulto, sino como realidad), y que quizás también han sido maltratadas por la sociedad.

Despedir a una conductora, la cual es probablemente pobre, quizás con hijos o padres ancianos, no va a solucionar el problema. El problema se soluciona cuando, como sociedad, hacemos una prioridad de las personas mas vulnerables y creamos un ambiente en donde estas pueden salir adelante y contribuir. Cuando se pasan leyes y pólizas que los protegen. Cuando mantenemos un alto requisito de toda compañía que opera en Panamá. Exijamos buses adecuados (que existen en todo país desarrollado), entrenamiento extensivos a sus conductores, y mas. Hablemos alto y fuerte, como el señor que hizo el video, en vez de dejar que la prisa y la conveniencia nos haga olvidar este tema de aquí a que salga el sol mañana. Si toda persona en el bus hubiera defendido al señor, te garantizo que la conductora se hubiera visto obligada a actuar correctamente. En vez, fue una voz solitaria la que velo en la obscuridad de un momento ignorante. La luz de la sociedad, que avanza lo que somos y queremos ser, se prende dentro de cada uno de nosotros, y no con el despido de una conductora pobre y ignorante.

No nos olvidemos de este momento la próxima vez que vamos a votar, no nos olvidemos de este momento la próxima ves que vemos una injusticia, y no nos olvidemos de esto cuando le enseñemos a nuestro hijos el deber grande que es tener compasión por otros, particularmente los mas vulnerable. Así es como cambiamos el futuro.

My main point is that Panama, as a society, has for generations dismissed the those with disabilities as second class citizens. Pedestrian bridges are built without elevators, utility poles are placed in the middle of sidewalks, essentially rendering them impassable to anyone who can’t squeeze through one side or the other, and ramps are often hilariously steep and therefore unusable. My argument is that the bus driver, most likely poor and ignorant, has grown up surrounded my politicians and companies that ignore anything and anyone that does not make them more money. It’s no wonder she behaved so disagreeably, if that’s the attitude she and those before her have lived in for generations. We don’t change society by firing a woman who might have children or elderly parents to maintain, throwing them all back into a cycle of poverty and ignorance. We change the future by teaching the next generation that compassion to those most vulnerable is not an option but a duty. We change the future by demanding the passing and enforcement of laws empowering those with disabilities to contribute to the economy and daily life — this starts with creating appropriate infrastructure for them. We change society, not by displaying singular moments of outrage forgotten by the time the sun sets tonight, but by standing up for injustices when they happen. If every person on that bus had stood up for the man in the wheelchair, I bet the driver would’ve been pressured into behaving in a less morally reprehensible way.

One single man lit a spotlight in the darkness of an ignorant moment. Society’s light, advancing who we are and who we hope to be, is lit inside every single one of us individually. It’s it not lit with the firing of one poor, ignorant woman. The moment on that bus was the failure, not of a one woman, but of a pervasive mentality: that those with disabilities are after-thoughts, only ‘burdens’ to their families.

For Panama to truly become the “First World” country it is striving to be, our infrastructure needs to match that ambition, and so do our hearts and minds. We need to realize that all the money, profits, canals and high rises will never enlighten a society that shuns those in need. And those in need include that bus driver, who was brought up, and lives every day, in the ignorance of believing we owe no compassion to the vulnerable.

Photo by Josh Hallett

People Writing

To you, who lived here.

Gerald ‘Jim’ Sullivan once lived here.

His former neighbors, now mine, told stories about Gerald J. Sullivan. They remembered him as neither completely sane nor crazy. In other words, that grey area a lot of us inhabit. As far as they know, he’s now homeless following eviction from my apartment. Although the eviction happened many years ago, he lingered around the property for some time. He approached the tenants and asked to be let into the courtyard until a restraining order was filed. Gerald J. Sullivan was a bit crazy but harmless, said the neighbors.

I only know Gerald J. Sullivan through these stories; and his mail. I know him mostly through his mail.


On Building a Life and Christmas

No one ever said building a life would be so complicated.

There is so much packing and unpacking.

And every time I settle somewhere — the two story townhouse outside of campus, the condo with hardwood floors on 7th Street, the 1930s fourplex with a courtyard near downtown, or the bungalow with creaking floors behind a house — I unpack what I gathered throughout the years, and I’m always shocked by how much I seem to catch in my net and drag along.

They are my own private collections of trivialities.

Every time I unpack, I rearrange them just so. Some need to overlap a tiny bit, face this way or that way, but not too much.

Even though it doesn’t matter. It just adds another layer of complexity, a useless expenditure of time — time that no one, as it turns out, can spare.

I have this tiny Nativity scene of 9 figures plus a few donkeys and a sheep. They stand about two inches tall. In my adult life, I have always lived in small places, so I’m unable and unwilling to recreate the elaborate displays of my childhood, where a whole corner of the house was set up with tables covered in papel manila as a stage for Jesus and his gang. The scene included trees, mountains made out of more papel manila, lights, buildings, sprinkles of pine needles from the Christmas tree. Once, I saw a Nativity scene at someone’s house — a cousin or uncle — that included an honest waterfall with running water.

One block.

The Nativity scene of my childhood possessed a meaning, a scent of something greater than the pine needles from the Christmas tree.

In Panama, Christmas is a collection of traditions deeply woven in Catholicism. I do not recall how I reconciled Santa with El Niño Dios, both of whom are said to bring gifts to children. My child’s brain must have been satisfied with knowing that El Niño Dios was Hutch to Santa’s Starsky. Santa, being an overweight man, can’t slide down the non-existent Panamanian chimneys so that’s where El Niño Dios, with his freaky newborn-sized crown of thorns, would come in and assist.

Two blocks.

So I arrange this pathetic Nativity scene on top of a corner of my bookshelf. I do this because it holds some meaning tied to a different time.

The meaning changed, it morphed into a non-meaning of tiny figures standing for something that’s important, of what was important to me long ago.

I can still remember the scent of the house during Christmas. A scent that for years I wondered how to replicate. I thought it was just the Christmas tree, but no overpriced tree we ever bought in U.S. could match the scent. Maybe the ventilation in North Carolina apartments, with heating and such things, was somehow responsible, I thought. Years later, long after my parents stopped pretending that Christmas trees mattered at all, I reevaluated the scent of Christmas in our house in Panama. The scent of angry pine beat by the unrelenting humidity of a climate it did not belong in, combined with the smell of the house, formed after fifty years of occupancy, of old furniture and dust. The scent of the family that lived there all along. The scent of its history, of time.

Three blocks.

Beyond the platitudes of the season, my Nativity scene exists to remind me of the building blocks that once combined create a life, same as the other worthless accoutrements I have packed and unpacked so often in the process of adding on to the building of said life.

I turned the figures this way and that way, the one-eyed sheep needs to be over here by the shepherd. And the shepherd can’t be too close because after all Mary is giving birth and the shepherd would want them to have privacy. The three Reyes Magos need to be standing farther apart because they haven’t arrived yet, and this donkey can be over here acting as guard.

Yeah, it makes sense.

I hide Baby Jesus behind a picture frame that reads “Stay close to nature. It will never fail you.”  As tradition dictates, the tiny Lord and Savior will stay hidden until the 25th, when he will make his grand appearance. One year, I forgot to bring him out of hiding and the Nativity scene remained Jesus-less until the 27th or 28th, at which point I was already several days in on my ride to hell.

Even as the meaning of things change, the blocks of how we got to where we are remain.

They take up space in our boxes.

They often take up space in ways that are unquantifiable, unmeasurable.

Reminders to never stop building.

Reminders of that scent.

The tiny furniture of the soul.

The one you can’t get rid of.

It all belongs to you.

SEA Writing

C-Watch is for Chelsea

Recently, I’ve been thinking more and more about former C-watcher, Chelsea. I found out she’s going through some rough times, and it made me hyper aware of the bonds and friendships we create. Chelsea and I were part of C-watch on the Corwith Cramer, and to say that we went through some incredible (and difficult) experiences together would be an understatement. Everyone on the Cramer formed part of this little family, and your watch mates were like brothers and sisters who you love but sometimes want to throw off the side of the boat, just as well to practice MOB drills.

They’re there at your worst, getting up for Dawn Watch at 3 a.m. as you tried to stumble in the darkness on deck, putting your shoes and harness on. They might even cover for you if you’re nowhere to be found, because it turns out you just fell right back asleep. They’re there when you’re doing Dawn Cleanup, and you’re on your knees cleaning the bathroom, with a squeege, a sponge with several corners missing, and a bucket wondering how did it all go this wrong? Dawn Anything seemed to be rough, except for dawn itself.

But they’re also there during the best of times, kayaking through mangroves in the Dominican Republic, and snorkeling with you through the reefs of several Caribbean islands. Your watch mates are likely to be standing next to you as the sun came up on a new day, and then as it came down, turning the stage over to the moon.

I still remember on a windy night, Chelsea and I were setting a jib or JT. We got it as high as we could by just hauling, then started cranking it up. She was tailing the line, I think, while I cranked. The wind was exerting such pressure on the sail and the lines, the seas were running pretty high, and it was pitch black, that I still remember the sound as I cranked the sail up. The mate of the watch kept telling us the sail needed to go up more and more, but the sound — the line was about to snap. Of course not. But I’ll never forget the feeling of just the two of us against this sail, knowing that if something went wrong, someone could be seriously hurt, and the sound…

Maybe I don’t talk to my watch mates very often or as often as I would like, but I still hold them dear — always will.

A home at sea
07 May 2010

My story began at sea
Sailing along from coast to coast
One day here, one day there
I stared at the wide Caribbean Sea

I may write a story to remember
Of mountains covered in the mist
I take photos trying to preserve
The color, the life, the people

Traveling creates stories full of people
Who you meet along the road
And whom you will remember or forget
Depending on what stories you choose to tell

It can be a story full of regret,
For all the stars I never saw,
For all the nights I wasted deep asleep
For all the sails I never set.

No more Sargasso screams at the rail
Or Boobies to record when in sight
No log to hove back
When the sea quiets down

What I remember from my voyage
Perhaps no story can ever tell
And in my thoughts, I found a home
For all that you could never see

A story always ends
And only memories we get to take
Hoping that the cruelty of age
Will let us keep them in some way

Photography Web Design Writing

A Present Worth Remembering

I wrote this maybe a year ago, to post on my work’s blog. But I suppose I didn’t think there was much of an audience for it on that blog, so I decided not to post it. Now, as I’m cleaning up my work laptop, I came across it and decided to go ahead and add it here.

My grandfather, Andrea Lapadula, with his children, Maria and Domingo, circa 1959 in Panama City, Panama.

My father, Domingo Lapadula, receiving a diploma from The Flying Nun.

Recently, I watched ‘Dark Side of the Lens,’ a video about bodyboarder and photographer Mickey Smith. Beside the stunning photography work and the beautifully written story, I was moved by one quote in particular.

If I only scrape a living, at least it’s a living worth scrapping. If there’s no future in it, at least it’s a present worth remembering.”

Is your present worth remembering? For every photograph we take, or story we write, we assess our present as worth immortalizing in some way.

When my father asked me to design a Web site for him to post old family photographs, I agreed hesitantly because, for one, he’s not very computer literate (he’s much better now than when I first wrote this, by the way). Also, I thought it would enable some sort of midlife crisis in which he was looking back at old memories of better, dreamier days — days when it did not feel as if time was running out.

But these days, he has his own domain and blog, which he has populated with an incredible collection of historical photographs from people, life and culture in Italy and Panama.

We’ve had our ups and downs getting to this point, including countless minutes spent going over the differences between a Web site with more or less static information, and a blog. Some days there were streams of phone calls (and texts, God forbid) because the site wasn’t matching his vision. The moral for me was to treat all projects, whether it’s for family or friends, as if they were money-paying clients who deserve a full, in-depth, patient explanation of every aspect of their site.

And for my efforts I received some of the best forms of payment, such as Panamanian coffee, Italian hair products (not to be found in the U.S.), and a lifetime of privileged, wisdom-laden statements such as “hmm” and “grrrr.” The best, though, is to have given him an outlet for something he, for whatever reasons he chooses, feels passionate about at this very moment in time.

Maybe 10 years from now, he will fondly remember those cold, lazy Sunday mornings trying to figure out the WordPress editor, and how to insert an image, or crop his photos in Photoshop, all the while cursing like a sailor and taking mini breaks to make more coffee that he drinks out of teeny tiny China cups. And while at times I wish he would try harder to make his present worth remembering and documenting, instead of dwelling in a past long buried by time, he would say he lives by his own inspirational quote:

El recuerdo es el único paraíso del cual no podemos ser expulsados”

“Memories are the only paradise from where we can never be expelled.” Go check out some of his memories, which he is documenting and sharing on this world wide web, for all to see.

And leave him a comment, it will make his day and will perhaps convince him to keep me as his Web designer. Because I don’t know what I would do without that Panamanian coffee and those cheap Aldi chocolate bars he sends me in the mail.


Pockets of Happiness

Catalina Island 2011

Vacations are sometimes disappointing and tiring. And although things are not all we hoped they would be, there are these flashes of happiness weaving into the long minutes of what can be an otherwise dull existence. I think I travel because of those fleeting moments of sheer unexpected happiness, so incomparable with the small mundane joys of everyday. Yet those moments are all so small: a good coffee, a hug, a conversation, and the sound of the sea — pockets of happiness. And little by little, those small pockets are filled with enough moments to hopefully make enough of a dent in our lives that we can look back and say “ah, yes, I had a good life.”

A few Saturdays ago, I slept on the deck of the Lugano following a race out to Catalina Island. I had a couch with my name below deck but the skipper, who pretty much becomes my dad when we are a certain number of nautical miles out to sea, had brought me a cozy sleeping bag and a pillow. Given the choice between sleeping in a musty below-deck and the open air above deck, I chose the deck. We were anchored in Cat Harbor, and the water lapped gently against the boat. As far as could be made out, there was this inescapable darkness broken only by the dim lights from the boats around us.

It was such a serene evening, and likewise bittersweet in that every other evening cannot match it, and that slow realization is heartbreaking. For years I have carried this curse to turn beautiful moments into deep, cruel existential crises. For every beautiful evening, there is a wicked dawn leading back to an everyday with nary a ripple in its vast ocean. So on deck I eventually fell asleep, subconsciously trying to will myself to stay still or I would end up breaking that peaceful night with my unceremonious splash into the water. Sporadically, I woke up — my tired brain thinking someone was around, walking around on deck, hovering near me. Within seconds though, my head would clear enough to look around, and with an unexplainable twinge, re-live the solitude that seemed as unbreakable as the black night.

I remember a somewhat uncomfortable night, slightly cold, but worthy of a line or two in these notebooks for writing down life, much as Clara did in Isabel Allende’s La Casa de los Espiritus.

I like to document the little things of my trips: the man on the BART reading a Chinese newspaper; the two women sitting across from me holding hands; the two teenage girls sharing headphones, one ear bud each and swaying their heads to the same music; John and his dog, Thelma, zipping us around Cat Harbor in a dinghy, the cab driver who asked me to explain Social Media as I tried to paint my nails in the back. I envision photographs in small moments, like visual souvenirs. And though sometimes they escape me, I hope to carry those visual souvenirs in my subconscious.

Yes, I travel to escape, and live a different life for a while: to find pockets of happiness. I collect them in photographs, in writings and in my heart, so they might lift me up in darker moments and make me smile.


Escribir en Español

A través de los años, y con vergüenza reconozco, el español se convierte más y más en mi lengua secundaria. Ni hablemos de tildes, las cuales hace tiempo eliminé de mis preocupaciones al escribir. Pienso y sueño en inglés, no por querer sino por la larga temporada que llevo viviendo en este país.

Decidí escribir este pasaje en español por que deseo practicar el lenguaje que recibí al nacer, en la esperanza de que algún día, regrese a ser mi herramienta de comunicación principal.

A medida que envejezco, mis sueños ingleses proveen el único escape donde se desahogan mis anhelos, donde el mundo que he construido se desarrolla con continuidad y estabilidad. De niños soñamos con el futuro perfecto, el trabajo de nuestros sueños, los amigos mas leales y el amor mas desenfrenado.

Yo me hice la promesa que nunca trabajaría un trabajo de oficina de 9 a 5, y hasta cierto punto he mantenido esta promesa. La vida, de la manera más cruel, me ha dado un trabajo de oficina de 8:30 a 5:30. Mi punto no es de maldecir horarios, ni edificios de luz fluorescente donde las plantas se mueren por falta de luz natural y aire fresco. Esos detalles no son importantes cuando sientes pasión por tu trabajo y las causas de tus proyectos — cuando eres feliz.

SEA Writing

On Receiving Mail from Bulgaria

I don’t check my mail very often. Very few important correspondence needs to be communicated by regular mail. These days, all I get in the mail are those bulky, useless ad fliers that I neither want or need, and that take up all the space in my small mailbox. As an aside, if you happen to know how to make those fliers stop, do let me know. They’re like the spam of snail mail.

My friend Dilyana from Bulgaria had given me a heads up about something she had mailed, so I have been eagerly checking my mailbox. Finally today, a month later, it got here!

Even as technology makes is possible to chat everyday with people living on the other side of the world, the excitement of receiving a physical object from a distant land hasn’t gotten old — I hope it never does.

Last year, while living at the SEA House in freezing, snowy Woods Hole, Di gave us these red and white bracelets called Martenitzas. They symbolize the end of winter and the beginning of spring, giving the wearer good luck, health and a long life. Martenitzas are traditionally worn from March 1st until the end of March or until you see a blooming tree.  To this blooming tree, you tie your Martenitza.

Puerto Rico San Juan Travels Writing

San Juan, Puerto Rico


It’s infinitely true, what people say. Well, some of it. But when you’re told that for your travels, a journal is an indispensable companion, the people are speaking the truth. And for all that, a journal is useless if you forget one thing: to write in it.

As my SEA travels fall further back into the irretrievable past, it is a struggle to remember the details, the nuisances of every day life while anchored in Dominican Republic, or docked at the marina in Jamaica. While traveling, your brain is in such overload mode, with new information, sights, sounds and smells all around you, it is easy to forget the name of that one restaurant or person.

And then when you’re back to real life, sitting at your office desk, you regret not writing more. You regret not making that effort, at the end of everyday, to write down every experience while it’s still fresh in your mind.

I meant to sum up every stop along my trip, with details on where we stayed and ate, yet as I began the following post on Puerto Rico, our first stop on the way to meet the ship, I struggled to remember the details. What was the name of that one corner shop where Sarah and I ate deep-fried goods and empanadas? Did we really eat empanadas, or were they some other deep-fried delicacies? I remember it had a somewhat out-of-context name like “Fast Mart” or something that sounded like you could get your car washed there too.

Here goes my best attempt at recapturing our stay in San Juan, Puerto Rico…

Amazing! Journalism Sailing Travels Writing

A new chapter

I hate making “big” announcements.

It seems egotistical to assume something that is big to me might mean the same to others. Usually, it doesn’t.

The two-weeks are in at my work.

Picture 5

Some of you have heard me talking about the SEA Semester program —the one educational opportunity I always regretted not doing while in college.

Starting in mid-February, I’ll be in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, which is near the beautiful Martha’s Vineyard area. I’ll be regressing to my college years, taking classes in all sorts of oceanography and maritime studies related subjects.

Then, I’m heading down to the Caribbean, to continue the semester learning about the finer points of sailing and research in the area. I chose this particular track because that whole area is close to my heart, and Panama shares a lot of the cultural and historical markers of the Caribbean region.

Did I mention I get to learn more about sailing?

And while at my work this doesn’t qualify as a journalism-related sabbatical, I plan to continue doing my own personal brand of journalism, writing about my experiences and posting photos.


For now, I’ll spare you the details on how this is logistically happening. It just is, and this is why:

I do not want to look back later in life and regret the things I should have done when I was young and carefree.

So far this life, I’ve only regretted the things I never did — the opportunities that flew by without me doing anything.

Blaming money can only go so far before it becomes just another excuse for why I’m idle and frustrated with what I haven’t accomplished. I’m not such a fool to think that money is not important. Money allows you to find happiness in whatever it is you value.

And I’m not such a fool as to not be grateful for all have, and the great opportunities that have come my way.

But I’ve often wondered if the excuses I create are a form of denial to never admit I’m afraid.

In my dreams, I change the world. In reality, I have convinced myself it is impossible because that is easier than doing something. In reality, I’m passionate about very little because being passionate is hard, painful and often disappointing.

It is a work-in-progress to realize you do not want the same things others do, or that while you might, you just do not value them the same.

I suppose that I decided, without really meaning to, that my career would have to wait — be second to adventure for a while. I welcome work in design, whether it’s web design or print graphics, and it has not stopped being my interest to be employed in that field.


My favorite question so far has been, “so what do you GET out of all this?” And the best response was suggested by a friend — whatever I want.

For the moment, I’m weary of defining success by what I GET in my bank account.

I’m ok with some people thinking that quitting the comfort of my steady income, and going to this program with no tangible financial benefits, is stupid.  To those people I say, I hope you find a shred of inspiration in my stupidity, to appreciate what you truly value, what you love on such a personal level that you have no need to convince others of its worth to you.


While this ain’t the Oscars, I can’t end this post without thanking those who have supported my crazy. M.M who encouraged the crazy if only for the sake of having a dream; the unfailing Don Wittekind, who can’t get rid of me no matter how many years and miles I go from UNC; Tyler for proofreading my essays; my sailing friends Ginger, Mark and Vance among many others.

And the two people who have been putting up with the crazy from day one — my parents. Thank you for always helping me think through my odd dreams and fancies instead of dishing out crushing disapproval. Above all else in my life, I’ve been the luckiest in having you.

I’ll post here as much as possible for those who are interested, and everybody is welcomed to follow me on this new adventure, as I hope you will.

The next chapter could be better or it could be worst. Either way, I’m confident it’ll be worth the read.