Organising a WordPress charity hackthon in Lebanon

tldr: On July 8 the first do_action charity hackathon outside of South Africa took place in Beirut. 30+ volunteers gathered, 3 charities got new websites (90%) completed and Nabeel and I had an unforgettable time as the co-organisers. Total cost approx $250.

On January 19th this year I pinged an Automattic colleague, Nabeel on Slack with an idea:
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“Do you want to help me?”

Today I took a train to Pisa. It was raining hard in Florence and from the looks of things it might be a little drier in the region of the leaning tower.

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Installed in good time in a window seat, snacks at the ready, off we rolled with a long tunnel making way for country scenes. Hay bales in green fields, cement bridges, yellow fields with yellow brick Tuscan houses, silver streaks reflecting skies above and trees like sentries along hilly rises. Continue reading

Underground shops, #wceu and burning rubbish

I wrote about Spain, I wrote about Istanbul so it seemed only right to write about my ten days in Sofia, Bulgaria. The first thing that happened was that I got scammed like a massive sucker by my taxi driver and charged €70 for a ride that should’ve cost around €8. So much for a street-wise South African dominating life in strange cities!

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Despite this not so nice start, the rest of my time was sweet. I stayed in an AirBNB and then the Hilton for WordCamp Europe and had fun doing a little exploring between Woo work. It wasn’t a holiday as such, but I did squeeze in a visit to the Art Gallery, walk around town, some meals out and an emergency trip to the dentist.

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After feeling so proud and responsible for getting travel insurance, it was kind of annoying that the filling I got was below threshold. I should have gone big and made them pay for a whole bunch of tooth-work while I was at it. But truth be told, I kind of did just want to get the heck out of there at the time. Thankfully, my AirBNB host was a champion and helped me find somewhere to go. One of the things he explained were the below street level stores that are dotted around the CBD. You have to kneel down to get to them!

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Sofia is an interesting city and not like anywhere I’ve been before. One can’t help but feel the hangover from before ‘The Changes’ evidenced in many small and more obvious ways. For example the public transport, ancient yellow trolleys that rumble past on wires and are the only way of getting around!

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Also the overtly communist architecture; WWII memorabilia scattered on tables between gilded icon paintings at the flea market; the lack of tourist-friendly setup in the overall infrastructure; old signage and crackled pavements and so on. It is a beautiful place, but there was an undergirding of sadness, suffering and survival that left me feeling contemplative.

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The conference itself was great (read my post about it on the WooThemes blog) and it was fun to meet some of my colleagues face to face. Arriving back in London sure felt good, and like home, but also not which was odd. Even more odd was waking up to a pile of rubbish burning serenely outside our doorstep. The world sure is a varied and interesting place.

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Cats, bunks and chewy ice cream

Nearly six years ago a good friend and I travelled through the Middle East together, starting in Istanbul. When we arrived it was raining and the view of The Blue Mosque as we stepped off the metro in Sultanhamet, I will never forget. We were buzzing with the exhilaration of independence, with little money, but had a wonderful time exploring the streets and sights. Taksim square, Topkai Palace, Ayasofya, Isitklal and many glasses of hot apple tea.

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I can hardly believe how young we look in this photo! Good grief. This week I found myself in Istanbul again, this time to meet up with good friends from South Africa at the end of their Turkish travels. Fran, Kirsty and Luke had spent two weeks along the coast, and Cappodoccia, and we rendez-vouzed at the airport then headed to #Bunk Beyoglu where we were staying.

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What a great place! I couldn’t recommend it more highly, just a few minutes walk from Isitklal street – that leads up to Taksim square. It was a relaxing few days with lots of eating, regular visits to Kronotrop for iced, milky drip-brewed coffees, afternoon naps and a fair amount of bargaining and shopping.

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I did all the main sights back in 2008 so left that to Fran and Kirst, but I did have a marvellous time pottering, drinking coffees, watching the world go buy and pounding the pavements. It was interesting to note how much more Western and commercial this city has become in a couple of years. When we came before the most we saw was a Gloria Jeans Cafe but now there are Burger Kings, Starbucks, Zara, Mango, Shake Shack and every other big-name outlet you can think of on the main drags. Not a bad thing I suppose, just interesting.

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One of the last things I did was go for a haircut, which I sorely needed before my ends split themselves into whole new generations. I asked our hostel guy and he recommended somewhere, a short walk away. They spoke no English but through gesturing I managed to make my desires of a very small trim known. In a country where you get sharply frowned at for laughing in public (this happened on the train) and stared at for baring legs and arms, it was a poignant and stark experience having my hair gently washed, brushed, expertly cut and then blow dried by a Turkish man called Arief. I can’t think of another circumstance that would allow for this kind of proximity and contact, and it really stood out to me.

Istanbul is awesome. There are so many stray cats you basically step on one at every turn and even though the locals claim to see them as vermin, they all leave food out and tickle them when no one’s looking. Now, on to Bulgaria this afternoon, hopefully for some Balkan music, a swim in the black sea and more.

Busot, blue seas and why Spain is awesome

Something you notice in Spain is that there is quite a lot of rubbish around. Not necessarily litter, but just rubble and bits and bobs. In comparison to some other countries, they don’t seem too bothered about having debris around. This might not seem ideal at first glance but it’s actually just an overflow of how wonderfully laid back they are. I love that about the Spanish.

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Mum and I arrived here on Sunday evening and were collected by our cousin, Richard, who has a house in Busot. It’s a little mountain-y village and he chose it because it is not a tourist spot. On the contrary it is quiet and sort of normal, which is really refreshing. It’s one thing to find a beach-hugging swanky place on the coast through AirBnB and another to stay in someone’s home. He’s had a place in Spain for about four years and is very clued up on all things local.

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The three main themes of our week together were food, swimming and family. First, food.

Suffice to say, we ate a lot. And then slept a lot to recover and then ate some more. My favourite meals were a three course lunch in the mountains after visiting an old castle; a beautiful dinner overlooking La Marina and the delicious stew Richard made for us. He’s proper good at cooking. Across those three occasions we had tender swordfish, herby rabbit, pork ribs, potent garlic paste called allioli, real lemon sorbet (which one drinks with a straw), salmon with prawn sauce, endive leaves with dollops of blue cheese sauce, helado (that’s ice cream) and more. More and more. Cava is what Spanish people call champagne. Also, the views from the places we ate! Exceptional.

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Then, swimming. My name is not Marina for nothing I realise. To be in the sea, is just one of my favourite things and having grown up in Cape Town, blissfully unaware of the glory it is to swim in warm seas, I almost died upon realising (last year, also in Spain) how nice it is to swim without gasping for your life and getting instant pins and needles. I will always love Spain for introducing me to warm water, and the beaches around Busot did not disappoint.

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We swam in a grand total of seven different beaches including El Campello, Portet, Benidorm and a bunch more. We swam on sandy beaches, slipped into the silky blue water off rocks and tanned so much I thought I would surely burn at some point, but I didn’t. Something I have discovered is the power of buying suncream that smells really nice (usually like coconut) as this makes me put it on more often and liberally. Viva el suncreamo coconut!

Finally, family. To have time with my mum in London and this week in Spain, was wonderful. Holidaying as an adult with my mum is so different, we travel and explore and experience things as equals. And it falls to me to say things like be careful the rocks are slippery and to take the heavy bags as we navigate the gradual and poignant role reversal all parents and children are destained to experience. I love my mum, she is the best mum in the world.

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It was also really lovely to be with Richard, and share family memories and stories. And, to experience some of the value Spanish people place on family. I so enjoyed seeing old and very leathery couples walking in the water together in the mornings, and we were spectators at a traditional fiesta parade (that lasted over three hours) and in which generations took part. Tiny children dressed as marauding Moors or Christians, babes in arms with dummies colour-matched to their parents jangling costumes, aunts and grandmothers side by side stepping forward in unison and fathers and grandfathers with cigars, mimicked by young boys with wooden swords and shields. It was beautiful. Family is beautiful.

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And that was my week in Spain. There was of course much more – star gazing, a glistening pool, exploring parts of the old town and art galleries, but enough for now. I am so grateful to have had this holiday and was so aware of God with me as I explored a new part of the world, basking in the beauty of His creation, relaxing and resting deeply.

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