New York City - New York Is a Great Place to Have Jetlag

September 01, 2008

(As it appeared in Slate)

The great thing about having jetlag in New York is that I'm up so early I get the best of the morning—the crisp, fresh, sunny starts that make you feel like you can take on the day ahead with gusto. And although I've been here many times before, the city's really buzzing right now: There are huddles of security guards in black suits everywhere, frazzled staffers hanging around hotel lobbies, and convoys causing traffic jams. Can't help but wonder if the average New Yorker is counting the hours until the U.N. General Assembly and everything else that's happening around it are over so they can get their city back.

So, I'm in NY this week wearing a couple of hats, shining a spotlight on the Millennium Development Goals and talking about the need for more sustainable development that will not only safeguard the environment, but also provide opportunity for the disenfranchised in society. It's something we're very interested in, in the Arab world.

I was invited to speak at Condé Nast Traveler's World Savers Congress conference amid the awesome and inspiring architecture of Gotham Hall. It was about the power of tourism to nurture our planet's precious resources while providing lasting economic opportunities for local communities.

I was there talking up the Middle East—not a region in conflict and turmoil, as many think, but a mosaic of cultures, stories, traditions, and warm, welcoming people.

So, there I was, psyching myself up backstage to speak, because no matter how often I do this, I still get nervous and have to steel myself.

Onstage, the beautiful, eloquent, and confident Ashley Judd was talking passionately about the work she's been doing to alleviate health problems in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda. All the time she was talking, there was a woman onstage next to her stirring, stirring, stirring this huge jug of what looked like dirty, muddy water. Turns out it was dirty, muddy water that was being sanitized by a little sachet of PUR crystals that disinfect and purify water, prevent waterborne illnesses, and save lives. And she drank it there and then to prove to us all how safe it was. I hope she feels fine in the morning! 

When I was driving to my next event, I watched swaths of NY's bright young women, suited, booted, and striding purposefully to work, to meetings, to lunches, and it made me think about a meeting I had yesterday with the executive director of UNICEF, Ms. Ann Veneman, and several members of her team. We talked about the 38 million girls around the world not in school, the girls not counted on birth registers, the girls enrolled in school but unable to attend because they have to collect water for their families, the lost girls. We talked about how UNICEF and other international organizations are trying to find them, give them a voice, make them count, and give them tools to change the course of their lives. 

Research shows that girls who go to school become women who spend more of the family resources on child nutrition, health, and education—so children grow up with better chances and choices. Educating girls is one of the highest-returning social investments we can make. And we're not making it. That's why I'm proud to be working with UNICEF on this and other education-related issues. It's too important to ignore. 

And then it was time to check in on my kids, back from school and having iftar with their grandparents. Of course, their news was less about missing their mom, what happened in school, and homework than it is about what toys, gadgets, and music I should be buying for them. You'd think that was my sole purpose for being in NY! I cautioned restraint, tried to manage expectations, and then panicked about where I could possibly get a microscope for examining insects, which is what seems very important for my 7-year-old right now. I so preferred the Barbie period! 

My husband told me that Hashem, my 3-year-old, has been coughing all night and has a temperature, and my stomach lurched with guilt for not being there to cuddle and soothe him. Why do they always get sick when I'm away? It kills me. I consoled myself with the thought that we'd all be together at the weekend—an extra-special one because of both my daughters' birthday parties. 

Midafternoon, I was full of good intentions to go for a walk and shake off the crashing fatigue, so I went back to the hotel. An hour later, one of my staff texted, reminding me of tomorrow's commitments, pricking my conscience, and so I got out my briefing papers.

Later in the evening, I had the honor of meeting a superhero in the field of development, someone I've always wanted to meet. Hectic as traveling for work is, meeting people like Dr. Fazle Abed, founder of BRAC, makes it so worthwhile. He's so humble, soft-spoken, and down to earth, you would never guess he'd touched the lives of millions of people in Bangladesh and beyond. If this is what one man can do to help the less fortunate, imagine what our combined strength could achieve. People like him fill me with hope.