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South by South America 

"Paulinho! Por que você para? Quero fotografar mais fotografias!" ("Paulinho! Why do you stop? I want to take more pictures!")

Qiana Martin's sun-bronzed skin glistened with sweat. She panted heavily as she tore her eyes away from the distant gray mountains and glanced to her right in the direction of the voice. A guy with an imposingly conspicuous camera draped around his neck stood a few feet away on the boardwalk with his bike between his legs. She'd noticed him a few minutes earlier as he'd been riding in their direction. Her first thought was that he was crazy. Nobody traveled around with a camera that size in public, even in the upscale neighborhood of Leblon in Rio de Janiero. It made you an easy robbery target.

"Aaaah!" the ebony-hued man laughed good-naturedly in response. He was standing just beyond arm's length behind Qiana. Paulinho was a former player for one of the four major soccer clubs in Rio. He was used to being photographed.

Returning his attention to his student, he explained, "El es paparazzo. Comprende?" ("He is paparazzi. Do you understand?")

Qiana nodded as she stood poised and ready. The cushion of the wide band pressed snuggly against her waist. Paulinho's arms were extended to give her enough space to move. A black strap of the makeshift resistance belt was wrapped around each of his hands to ensure it remained taut. He braced himself.

"Let's go!" his deep, firm voice commanded over the crescendo of the Atlantic Ocean. It was the only English phrase he knew.

White sand flew. Feet flashed forward as if fighting a fierce wind. It's Thursday morning at Posto 11, Leblon Beach. Time to train.

Rice, boiled chicken, a vegetable and water -- Qiana remembers when that was the daily special. Colonel Sanders would be appalled. She also remembers her grandmother, Lucille, making ultra-healthy sandwiches with oil-separated peanut butter. Companion choices? Two scoops of applesauce or a few banana slices. Not a jar of jelly in the house. Never a fan of the banana-peanut combo, young Qiana opted for the lesser of two evils: "peanut butter applesauce." And, secretly, she counted the days until the church's next gathering. At least then she could scout out an opportunity to steal away and sip a swig of Kool-Aid or delight in a delectable dessert.

For Qiana, the early years of her life were less than ideal. In addition to the nutritious, but atypical, selections for the family's daily provisions, there were just a lot of realities that she simply didn't care for. Summer vacations inescapably meant raking leaves, cutting grass and shelling peas under the strict direction of her grandparents, who were raising her and her brother. And, even though she and her family kept the government's handout list at bay, periodic welfare situations were not uncommon. To add insult to injury, the stork had dropped her off in the less than thriving metropolis of Seneca, S.C.: population 7,652.

Strenuous unpaid labor and limited family funds aside, this last reality was the one that truly taunted Qiana the most. Small-town life never was for her. Yet, it was below her feet, around her body and in her face. She knew from an early age that the life she daydreamed about was beyond city limits. What she didn't know was that the life she dreamed about was not her own.

The deposit on Qiana's ticket out of town came while she was sitting in an advanced sixth-grade English class. The teacher's teen daughter was in Washington, D.C., getting paid to work as a senator's page for a month. It was the first time that Qiana considered the value of being an exceptional student.

The only audible sound in the room was the teacher's voice, but Qiana distinctly heard the knock of opportunity. Her hometown, as far as she was concerned, would never be a handicap that could hold her hostage. And, to ensure that, Qiana believed she had to be smarter and do more to build the case for her career choice. She began mapping out milestones that she wanted to accomplish. Her plan included attending a good college and then going to a good law school. So, after asking a few questions about the senator's program, she shoved the information into a mental manila folder.

A few years later, as a junior in high school, she revisited the idea of working for the government. It was the opportune time to respond to the knock. When she opened the door, she found herself walking around Capitol Hill as a page to none other than the legendary South Carolina Republican Senator Strom Thurmond. She'd arrived at the first stop on her journey toward the destination depicted in her mind. She knew the life she wanted -- free of financial fretting and corn shucking -- was out there.

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