Friday, June 26, 2009

The Boulderization of the Third World

When I was a little girl, I thought the stars were millions of tiny holes poked through the sky to give us a glimpse at heaven behind the curtain.

Sort of like a Lite-Bright.

As I walked through the Kyangwali Refugee Camp in western Uganda last week, I had that feeling again.

Sure, there was this heavy darkness stretched over the continent -- and on a refugee camp, things get really dark. Figuratively and literally. Zero electricity means zero ambient light. In fact, twice my mom woke up in a panic because she thought she had gone blind.

I laughed, as any daughter should.

But with darkness this dark, the brightness is that much brighter -- you guessed it -- figuratively and literally.

One night, I was busy obsessing over the stars to distract myself from the fact that I hadn't washed my hair in two weeks, when one of the stars seemed to wiggle itself out of the constellations and perch on a mango tree. Then, another. (Insert confused dog-like head tilt here.)

As a Colorado native, I didn't know this version of Lite-Bright. Now, my mom got to laugh. Lightning bugs. Aha. And they seemed to be in some sort of arthropodical turf war with the mosquitoes, which is why we were in Africa. My mom's nonprofit organization, Think Humanity (, distributes mosquito nets and runs an orphanage at the camp.

But then, in the distance, we saw two more yellow sparks. They were on the ground, and shuffling, not floating. As the bulbs drew closer, more appeared behind them. More. Until it was a veritable mafia of radioactive-yellow -- Crocs.

The Niwot-based shoe company's SolesUnited program has distributed more than 2 million shoes to needy feet worldwide, and this summer it left its footprint in Kyangwali.

For the first (and only) time in my life as a fashion columnist, I praised these ridiculous-looking clown shoes. And I felt envy. Turns out the adorable Sketchers I brought were better suited for Chinese foot binding than traipsing around the equator carrying a 40-pound backpack.

But at least my feet underneath looked lovely. Before I left, I got a pedicure at Ten20 spa in Boulder. Miraculously -- and I say this with no exaggeration -- my polish endured the worst of human conditions. In fact, I was the only person in my group whose feet made it out of Uganda with no jiggers.

Warning: Only read the next sentence if you are not currently eating breakfast. Jiggers are parasitic fleas that burrow into your feet and lay eggs.

Does Ten20 have some magic anti-jigger treatment? Perhaps. They have everything else (including M&Ms and poodle-print aprons). Not to mention in nature, fluorescent coloring indicates poisonous. So maybe my bright pink polish scared the parasites away.

Several days later, I ended up in the capital, Kampala. While limping through the neighborhood where we were staying, I stumbled across a familiar sign: BeadforLife.

I had heard about BeadforLife before. The Boulder-based nonprofit organization empowers impoverished Ugandan women to make colorful jewelry out of recycled paper and trash. In fact, I had purchased my mom a few BeadforLife necklaces for her birthday. In fact, she was wearing them.

I followed the sign down a hill, toward a palm-tree field. Then left, then left again. I felt like a real hard-hitting fashion journalist when I knocked -- unannounced -- on the big metal gate. If this was a slum, or a scam, or a storefront to smuggle delicious Ugandan sugar into the United States, now was the moment of truth.

Tada! The door creaked open. And a large front yard was bustling with African women, rolling beads, stringing them, attaching clasps. It was as colorful and joyful as "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," except way yummier and with no creepy Oompa Loompas.

This was real.

I bought enough necklaces to feed the entire country for three years.

And today, back in Boulder, on top of my little black dress, my bright African necklaces are my personal little glimpse (back) into heaven.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Cycle chic

Photo from

Before we get started, I disclaim: I was wearing tights under my dress. Fluorescent pink tights.

I don't care what you thought you saw as I rode my motorcycle down Pearl Street. You didn't see it.

And yes, those were gold ballet flats, and although they don't provide much ankle support, I was still wearing a helmet.

Plus, I changed into my Docs before I got on U.S. 36. (But I fear the pink leggings may have contributed to some looky-loo traffic congestion.)

I'm sorry. Now get used to it. This is a movement.

For fashion freaks, riding a two-wheeled single-person alternative vehicle -- a bike, scooter, motorcycle or cruiser -- seems like quite the quandary. You don't want to ride during the blizzardly pants-and-boots months. Then it warms up, and you want to wear dresses and peep-toes.

But the American cycling industry insists you cannot dress adorably and simultaneously sit on a bike. In fact, people are incapable of pedaling unless they are wearing flesh-sucking fabrics that end with an "x" (Spandex, Coolmax, Goretex), which would make even the marble statue of David look jiggly.

In fact, the League of American Bicyclists lists five materials under the "clothing" section of their Web page: the triple-x fabrics and wool and nylon.

That's it.

No cute cotton dresses, satin bows, no patent leather flats or jersey stripes. Just the five most uncomfortable fabrics ever made.

Adding visual insult to this travesty, said fabrics shall only be produced in unflattering colors, such as radioactive green, radiation yellow and nuclear fission blue.

Heck, while we're at it, let's billboard the entire uniform in brand names to make the cyclist look like a sell-out, too.

No more! (Exclamation point necessary to accompany me jumping from my desk with my manicured fist in the air.)

This June, in honor of the 33rd annual Walk and Bike Month, I want to redefine the concept of cycling. Let's take bicycles back from the recreational hobbyists who have fooled skirt-wearers into thinking that a lightweight frame is somehow more important than how your basket is decorated. (As if.)

Boulder's cruisers get this concept, but only on Thursdays when they meet for their costumed rides throughout town.

But what about the day-to-day folks who feel jailed inside their stuffy, gas-guzzling cars because they don't realize that hundreds of thousands of people across the world do not buy into the American Spandex myth?

Don't believe me? Believe Copenhagen. Yes, the entire Danish city, and the nucleus of the Cycle Chic movement, which has swept Europe and is now gracing New York and increasingly more U.S. cities.

Cycle Chic is about riding slowly and stylishly; enjoying the fresh air and not trying to race the Hummer to the stoplight. From the Cycle Chic manifesto: "I will ride with grace, elegance and dignity."

I can see the quintessential Parisian cyclist, in a flowy black dress (Europeans always wear black, you know), strappy sandals and an oversized sunhat, accented with a flower that matches the flowers on her basket. There is no secret cult of car drivers bashing her on anonymous online forums. She rides the bicycle as it was meant to be ridden.

According to, bicycles helped liberate the working class -- especially women -- at the end of the 19th century. The bike was only later relegated to being a toy or piece of sports equipment, the Web site says.

Choosing style over speed means no cyclists darting in and out of traffic like little drunken Lance Armstrongs. It means no armpit sweat soiling your clothes, thereby eliminating the argument for the x-fabrics that "wick away moisture." A leisurely pace also cuts back on the number of Marilyn Monroe skirt flashes, although simple leggings underneath also do the trick.

Spandex advocates argue that a skirt can catch in the spokes. So make a do-it-yourself skirt guard (

And on those days when your outfit calls for stilettos, toss them in a gorgeous basket, such as a black basket designed to look like lace ($60 by Marie-Louise Gustafsson).

Or if you're on a bike with an engine, Willie and Max ( makes saddlebags in pink, purple, burgundy, red and white. Just be smart, in both the American and British definition of the word.

Hardcore Cycle Chic-kens might frown on me for lumping motorcycles in with their cruisers and Schwinns. But I, too, understand the joy of riding slowly and stylishly.

And my quads could never propel me the 50 miles a day I ride to and from work.

My bike's name is Cerise -- French, of course, meaning cherry red. I call Cerise my "moving meditation," with no distractions, no radio, no cell phones or passengers or coffee cups balancing on the console.

Just me, Cerise and my skirt.

And my pink tights. Which, now that I think about it, happen to be Spandex-y. And radioactive pink.