Rookie at the U.N. Part 3: Ambience

In the halls of the U.N., the air is almost electric.

Everywhere you look and listen there are chatter and change, little conversations about big ideas.

Across the street, there is a food cart that serves sumptuous mediterranean cuisine. The same two guys park there every day, and they are quite the characters.

They know everyone on the block, see everyone everyday. They have their regulars.

I find them early in my trip, and sit on their corner most afternoons listening to the row of international flags flapping across the street, watching my breath in the March New York City air, and devouring fresh steaming kababbs and yellow rice–with extra special sauce from my newfound friends.

I listen to their stories, about how they both emigrated here … how they’re just living the American dream. Just like my family that escaped from Cuba in the ’60s. So cool.

Once again I let the city envelop me, and savor its unique intricacies.

One afternoon I settle for lunch inside the U.N. complex. The massive cafeteria is backdropped by enormous windows hovering over the Hudson, pulling me like a magnet. (Hey! What can I say? I’m a Florida girl at heart, and the water still draws me in wherever I go.)


I sit at a long table and am soon surrounded by International students, here on various assignments. They hail from countries all over the world–mostly Europe.

Our lunchtime conversation is, of course, fascinating. We discover uncanny connections, exchange information, and network like crazy.

I’m learning that at the U.N. every interaction–at meetings, at meals, in the hallway, even in “the loo”–have the potential to be lasting and productive. It’s so energizing! Yet exhausting.

Every night we return to the hotel so wound up with stories that we talk for hours … and then we’re up with the sunrise, walking the icy streets of Queens and catching the subway back the the U.N. once again!

One chilly afternoon, a beautiful robed woman sits near my food cart toting a sack full of handmade jewelry. Out of the corner of my eye I watch other ladies sort through her bracelets and earrings.

Usually not tempted by street-side peddlers (I hate to say I’m a bit of a penny-pincher), I suddenly remember where I am and my curiosity gets the best of me.

Amazing Grace Beads (photo credit:

I have to ask … and of course, like everything else that week there is a story. And a very significant one!

Many girls in Africa turn to prostitution as a way to support their families. In response to this problem, my remarkable lunch buddy–whose name I learn is “Grace”–is teaching Liberian women to look down at the ground around themselves for alternatives.

The jewelry in her sack is beautiful and unique, to be sure. But these are’t just any jewels. What’s the saying? Necessity is the mother of invention? That is Grace’s motto.

As part of her organization, called “Amazing Grace”, she teaches women and girls how to create beautiful jewelry from garbage they find in the streets. The ladies scavenge for old bottles and broken glass, then melt the pieces in a hot furnace and make the beads themselves. Some are even hand-painted.

These women are literally turning trash into treasure.

Grace owns a shop where she sells the handmade treasures, but she also conducts workshops, teaches girls the trade, and encourages them to set up shops themselves–so they can become self-sufficient.

For the dozenth time this week, I am dumbfounded.

My very own “Amazing Grace” creations

Of course, I buy myself a set! I pay a pittance considering the time, effort and sacrifice behind the pieces. And the workmanship is exquisite.

My Big Ocean Women traveling companions are nearby and they are as intrigued as I am. These are the stories they are looking for at the U.N. Amazing women all over the world … doing amazing things … big and small.

After returning home, I’m ecstatic to learn that other Americans are out there in Liberia helping Grace too. Helping her cause, and working on the front lines in her impoverished nation.

I reflect on the photographs Grace showed me that afternoon: pictures of her girls and the hot furnaces and glowing molten glass. I feel the weight of the beads in my hands and imagine the delicate fingers that created them.

But back at the U.N., as I cross the street and re-enter the swishing glass doors wearing my treasures … something unexpected happens. Smirks from the suits. Sidelong glances and–is that an eye roll?–from the ‘important people’ in the hallway.


Can it be that they know her? Have they met Grace? Heard her story? Maybe they consider it a scam or just don’t think it’s worth discussing in a committee.

Perhaps women in Africa turning to prostitution to support their families is ‘just how the world works’? 

I feel a little sick.

But it’s all part of the ambience.

Electricity in the air, chatting and changes, windows overlooking the Hudson, mediterranean food, flags waving from every nation, and little conversations about big ideas.

At the end of the day, I feel a new hope for grassroots organizations and NGOs and our ability to get things done!


“Rookie at the U.N.” Series:
Part 1: Trek to the Big Apple
Part 2: The People There
Part 3: Ambience

Photo credit (top): U.N. building and flags, Universidad Cardenal Herrera,

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