December 2014


(c) 2014 Kathryn Pharr

After years of traveling to Muslim majority countries for the past couple years and previously living in Israel, it was really quite a surprise to be in a Catholic country for work a week before December 25. Besides Christmas celebrations and decorations, there were other clues that this was an atypical work trip for me: alcohol everywhere, tank tops, and short shorts.

Colombians celebrate Novena de Aguinaldos, the nine days leading up to Christmas Day. Unique traditions like gifts being brought by Baby Jesus through the window and evening family Novena celebrations are explained in excellent detail here.  We learned from a local friend that the Novena (roughly a half hour of prayers and songs) are even performed in malls, so Sara and I headed to the Santafe mall on the second night of Novena. Performers in Christmas plaid were singing to a very enthusiastic audience, many of whom were adorable small children shaking small tambourines and maracas to keep time with the music.  It was interesting to see something so religious in such a secular space.
Medellin (pronounced Mah-dah-jeen) is the second largest city in Colombia and is nestled i


(c) 2014 Kathryn Pharr

n the Aburra Valley. The views are simply stunning of the Andes Mountains. Even working out in the gym was exciting because of the incredible view. Medellin has won an award as the Innovation City but not the type of innovation you think of when you think of my job. Their award comes from the amazing work they have done for urban planning in the last twenty years. The city had grown so large that even four years ago people referred to different neighborhoods within Medellin as “X City” instead of “X neighborhood.” It took over two hours to get from the north part of town to the south, physically segregating the poorer sections of town that were in the hills.  The city created a cable car system as part of the public transportation. Now instead of walking up steep hills or navigating narrow streets in a car, a quick ride in the air gets you from the north end to the south in half an hour thanks to the cable car and the metro system. This change has really brought the city together and added job opportunities to many who live in poorer neighborhoods.


(c) 2014 Kathryn Pharr

Another famous act of Medellin is their annual display of Christmas lights along La Playa Avenue on the Medellin River. National Geographic named these lights as one of the ten most beautiful Christmas light displays in the world. Of course we couldn’t leave town without experiencing them for ourselves. This display is put on by EPM, the local utility company, which really gives back to the city. Every year a new theme for the lights is determined in January, and the display is created by locals throughout the year. Creations are covered in metallic paper and LED lights to reduce electricity. The result is lovely in daylight and breathtaking at night. Walking along the river at night has the same ambiance as being at the county fair: lots of vendors selling everything you can think of from arapes stuffed with meat and cheese to strings of mangos in a small paper bag ready to eat. The narrow walkway is crowded with teenagers enjoying an evening of freedom and with families of strollers and grandparents in tow sharing the experience. Our local friend explained that many of the vendors live the rest of the year off what they make during the six weeks the lights are on display.

Of course, the river isn’t the only place to see lights. There were amazing lighted tulips and snowflakes hanging from trees near our hotel. It may have felt like spring weather, but we were truly in a winter wonderland.

(c) 2014 Kathryn Pharr

London is apparently a place that I see slowly (and infrequently-it’s been almost ten years since I’ve stepped into even Heathrow). When I was at Oxford for a summer, each trip to London involved doing only one thing a day: a West End show, Sherlock Holmes house, the V&A (to be fair that would take all day), a show at the Globe, and an afternoon out to Hampton Court. So it was unsurprising to me that when I had a day to layover in London after Morocco, I focused on one thing: the Tower of London. To be more accurate, I was determined to see the amazing “Tower of London Remembers” Poppy display.


(c) 2014 Kathryn Pharr

To recognize the 888,246 who died during World War I, which began 100 years ago this year, one ceramic, handmade poppy was planted in the moat or around the Tower to commemorate each death. The result was stunning. After November 11, they began taking the poppies down, and when I arrived on November 23, there were only a few left. Still, it was amazing to watch the volunteers disassemble the poppies and prepare them for shipping to those who had bought them. In the United States, World War I is overlooked, with most people fluent only on the details of World War II. There is only one museum for World War I in the U.S. In Britain, however, the first World War is very much in everyone’s memory. It changed the social landscape of Britain and continental Europe as well as beginning “modern warfare.”

Thinking about WWI while touring the Tower of London gave an interesting perspective. My dad and I have had a lot of discussions about mustard gas and other chemical warfare that occurred during WWI, but stepping into the torture chamber at the Tower underscored that war has never been genteel.


(c) 2014 Kathryn Pharr

The most recognizable photo of the Tower is the White Tower, which holds the famous Line of Kings (previous Kings’ armor and that of their horses), so I was pleasantly surprised to realize how many different architectural styles there were throughout the fortress.

It is said that the Tower will be safe unless the ravens ever leave it, which made me realize this was the first time I had ever heard of ravens being a good omen. Maybe I watched Sleeping Beauty too many times.


(c) 2014 Kathryn Pharr

I strongly recommend taking one of the Yeoman Wanders tours; this is not just because I am a big fan of Yeoman of the Guard. It was interesting to learn that the Tower minted money at one point. Seeing the “Royal Beasts” saddened me as I thought about what harsh conditions those animals endured to get to England and how unlikely it was they were to have been properly cared for. I did tour the crown jewels, but I preferred the detailed embroidery of the Supertunica (a robe of gold cloth), which contained symbols of Scotland, England, and Wales.

If you are spending an afternoon at the Tower, make time for the All Hallows Church next door. It’s the oldest church in London and has an active congregation. It also has a cafe after a bloodythirsty afternoon or you can find some nice restaurants nearby and right on the Thames.

Another recommendation is where I stayed near Bayswater: the Grand Royale, a beautiful Edwardian building with reasonable hotel rates (especially at



(c) 2014 Kathryn Pharr

Hauntingly familiar is what Morocco is. Exotic is the first adjective that comes to mind, not because everything is new, but because there is just enough familiar in a different setting to create pause.

I walk down the streets with the salmon clay tiles that have stared back at me in Israel, in Indonesia.  I see the same pattern of red and white paint along the curve, indicating no parking in so many countries I’ve visited, that no one pays attention to.  There is the familiar mix of palm trees, evergreens, and orange trees carefully lining the parks.  As I open my hotel room’s balcony doors, the adnan, call to prayer, washes me with memories.

And yet, nowhere else I have been serves perfect mini creme brulees and macaroons.  The French influence has also resulted in an interesting dialectic mix of Arabic and French that most Arabs cannot understand.  Bright headscarves liven up the souks, which smell different from Jordan or Israel.  While there are still smells of raw meat and vegetables, some of the spices perfuming the air cannot be found elsewhere. The prevalence of leather goods also adds a wonderful and unique component for olfactory senses. I dread shopping in sterile malls, but every trip to the greater Middle East and North Africa region finds me losing track of time as I meander along narrow alleyways and past shops that offer better birthday and holiday presents than I ever find back home.


(c) 2014 Kathryn Pharr

In Marrakech, the medina, or old city, is stupendous. The large square, Place Jemaa-el-Fna, is notorious for its evening market, where crowds come to see snake charmers, hear musicians of local music, drink fresh orange juice, and eat snails, a local delicacy served in small bowls of broth with Moroccan spices.  Also in the medina are some wonderful restaurants like Le Jardin, which renovated an old home and serves marvelous Moroccan fare.  After a good late dinner there though, Luke, Phil, and I accomplished another requirement of visiting the medina: getting lost literally.  All the shops look completely different once they are closed, and all you can see are ornate doors that were hidden by wares during the daylight.  As a group, we eventually came out, near the Mosque de la Koutonbia, an easy to see icon for the old city.  One of my favorite places in the medina is La Maison de la Photographie, a small museum of photographs from 1870s to 1920s. Our group stumbled upon in back in September, but I was unable to return on this trip.

While bartering in the souk is a fun pasttime, sometimes you just don’t want to buy four extra shawls to get a decent price. Spending time shopping at the Ensemble Artisanal Handicraft Center takes that stress away. The prices are fair (you can maybe get 10% off), and the quality is sometimes better than what is found in the souk.  However, it’s such a good deal that the concierge at my hotel tried to tell me they didn’t sell things.


(c) 2014 Kathryn Pharr

Another breathtaking aspect of Marrakech is the architecture.  To be overwhelmed, be sure to wind your way through back alleys to the Dar Si Said, where for a mere 10 dirhams ($1.50), you can see stunning combinations of Moroccan lanterns, tile mosaic floors and walls with painted wooden ceilings. The vibrant colors and geometric patterns in Islamic art are one of my favorite things to see while traveling.  Another palace worth visiting is Palais La Bahia, just a few steps from Dar Si Said. Bahia is more elaborate and the same price as Said but also caters to larger tour groups, so you might not have the place to yourself.

While this work trip did not allow for time to visit the Atlas Mountains or pop over to Fez, I really enjoyed the time I had to explore Marrakech.  There were three opportunities I had thanks to work as well.  I attended an evening reception with Dr. Jill Biden and some of our female entrepreneurs at the Palais el Badi, an old fortress palace that houses the Musee de la Photographie et des Arts Visuels.  Local musicians serenaded us as we entered, and the salmon clay walls were light with various colors of light.  At the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, we all sang Vice President Joe Biden happy birthday. If you’ve got to work on your birthday, it’s pretty nice to have 4,000 people singing you good wishes at 72.  Lastly, beyond the amazing entrepreneurs who came through our program and who are so inspiring, we had a fabulous reception (with them of course) on the rooftop of the Pearl Hotel. It was like something out of a movie as we gazed out over the beautiful twinkling lights of the cityscape.