Sunday, February 09, 2014

Poem from Bali

I'm currently in Ubud, Bali trying to find my muse. Well I know where she is but it appears that I can only come and see her if I am tied down into a chair, caffeinated to my eyeballs, and have spent at least 8 hours procrastinating.

So this is not really a poem - more of an inspiration. I was looking through my quotes from and they gave me a list of tag words from the quotes I like which I thought was an interesting meditation on me and what appeals to me.

Below: the poem.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

A year in movies: 2013

(A short list of all the movies I saw in the theatre or on airplanes this year)

The Good: 
Pacific Rim*: Disappointingly i had to watch it on the airplane but it was good cheesy fun with a strong female lead. Robots! Giant monsters! Hope to see it on the big screen one day.

Gravity - IMAX 3D - what a sensory adventure. I saw it after 3 months living back in time in Burma and was just blown away. Well worth the extra money for IMAX.

Catching Fire: The Hunger Games 2- very good escapist and dark but still moving. Love the female lead. Curious to see how they will do book 3. And I'll miss Lenny Kravitz.

Which Way to the Front Line: Documentary on Tim Hetherington - really moving but perhaps more for his friends as a way to remember him than a real expose on his work. But I wept to see his promise ended so soon.

Zero Dark Thirty: Also very intense and gripping. It was a good film and well acted. A bit too close for comfort with the Pakistan explosions.

Mud: Great movie and performance by Matthew McConaughey. Really Oscar worthy - and great child actors too. Made me sort of home sick for South Carolina.

Silver Linings Playbook: Such a great movie! Bradley Cooper can act! Jennifer Lawrence was great but mostly I just love the director David O. Russell.

Bernie*: Saw on the airplane to Tokyo - really funny, really well acted, hysterical and so true of the South.

End of Watch*: Great performances by Jake Gyllenhal and Freddie Pena. I was really moved by this movie.

The Okay: 
Wolverine: I liked it more than i thought I would because it was set in Japan and I went there this year. But I didn't understand the end at all!

Despicable Me 2: Cute and good for some giggles. I liked the minions and the Macho villain.

World War Z: So disappointing compared to the book but on its own - it stands up as okay. B-. But WHO saves the world??? God help us.

Warm Bodies: Surprisingly romantic - saw it on Valentine's Day in Bangkok surrounded by 100 couples.

Jack the Giant Slayer: Could have been more charming but still fun

Mama** (actually saw it on the bus on my visa run to Cambodia but it was still playing in the theatre!) Good gothic fun and creepy premise.

The Boring: 
Midnight's Children: What a long and rambling boring movie.... I'm sure the book was much more interesting. The actors were not good, the plot was a bit draggy, and all of the interesting things got glossed over.

Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters* - too gory and not nearly as much fun as it should have been. I find Jeremy Renner very dull and don't think he should be a lead.

Side Effects*: Was hoping that Jude Law would lift it but Rooney Mara is such a dull actress. I didn't buy it at all.

Bachelorette Party: Boring, crass, borderline offensive. But Kirsten Dunst is awesome!

Frank and the Robot: Not funny, not a crime caper, and instead a really depressing take on Alzheimers.

Beautiful Creatures: Set in South Carolina, supernatural romance between two hot teens, sultry scenary chewing by Jeremy Irons and Emma Thompson but still dull dull dull.

Still hoping to see before the end of the year: 
American Hustle

The Hobbit 2

12 Years a Slave

Inside Llewyn Davis

The World's End

Favorite Xmas Songs (playlist)

Glitzy Christmas Trees of Bangkok

I made a playlist of all my favorite Xmas songs that I play on my iPod throughout the holiday season. I sort of have a thing for Xmas songs - mostly soul and country music but with a big dose of pop from the 80s! I hope you enjoy it!

Favorite Xmas Songs (playlist)

Friday, August 30, 2013

Monsoon Living in the footsteps of George Orwell

Aerial view of Rakhine State.
I am sitting in rainy monsoon struck Myanmar (i.e. Burma but we’re not allowed to say that because that’s politically not supporting the current regime) in Rakhine State (formerly known as Arakan State) where I’m working with the Muslim population of internally displaced people (or as they call themselves, the Rohingya – but we’re not allowed to call them that because that acknowledges that they are an ethnic group that belongs to Myanmar and not a bunch of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh as the government calls them).

Sittwe Town from my hotel
Sittwe is a beautiful little village. Just what you imagine a rural decrepit town in Myanmar/Burma might look like. Old colonial houses dripping with dark patches of damp, overgrown and lush green gardens, gorgeous mango trees and coconut palms and people walking by in their lungis with things balanced on their heads and carrying umbrellas to shelter them from the rain and the sun. There is a golden stupa in the middle of town with a giant golden standing Buddha next to it peeking out over the top of the tree canopy and gazing at the Bay of Bengal.  The sense of neglect is visible in all the buildings, the few newer ones are garish and cheap looking with that weird reflecting tinted windows that seems so common in the Middle East and China. There aren’t many cars here. People can travel around town on bicycle-driven rickshaws  where they can sit two very very thin people – not Americans- , one facing each way and the bicyclist wearing a conical bamboo hat, cycles alongside you. Or there are lovely Burmese ladies perched on the back of bicycles always carrying an umbrella to shade themselves from the sun or rain. Or you can ride in a “tuktuk”. These are different than the ones in Bangkok - more of a sort of truck bed with two benches in it and a canvas streteched over the top driven by a motorcycle or a tractor . There are a few scooters and the cars that are here are old jeeps or Landrovers from the NGOs. Men wear button down shirts, flip flops, and lungis – the patterned long piece of material that they wrap around their waist and constantly have to adjust. Many women wear traditional dress and put this pale yellow clay on their faces to protect it from the sun and wear flowers in their hair. There are police and military officers as checkpoints all over the city. The sense of a military dictatorship is still very prevalent as we all have to wait on travel authorizations and permits to leave the town.

Riding to work in the rain

I am supposed to call this country Myanmar (its official name) but I like saying Burma better and most of the human rights activists still call it Burma because that was its name before the military coup and dictatorship here. I spent a week in Yangon – the capitol (formerly known as Rangoon). Yangon is lovely – very green and lush and I’m lucky to have been able to sublet a beautiful old house with a garden. I posted some photos on facebook of the orchids in the garden. I’ve also been reading George Orwell’s Burmese Days from when he was a
colonial policeman here and Finding George Orwell in Burma which retraces his footsteps and analyzes Burma during the height of the military regime (before the recent “reforms”). “Everyone falls in love with Burma except George Orwell” claims the author and I think she might be right. Yangon is a beautiful city and as far away from the skyscrapers and malls and convenience of Bangkok as it can possibly be - definitely more my style than Bangkok. Maybe I’ll get a job here and settle down for a bit which is what I would like.  However, people are
still quite terrified of the authoritarian regime, no matter what the “reforms” say so it’s an odd feeling to be part of the lucky who are benefiting from the opening of Burma and not really aware of the realities of the regular Burmese. And although I love colonial architecture, thinking about the abuses that took place here under colonialism puts a damper on tea or gin and tonics at the Strand.

Rohingya man in IDP camp
In Sittwe where the humanitarian crisis is  - it definitely feels like the place that time forgot. Time moves slowly here and I’ve had to detox (which is a good thing for me!) - I’ve maybe had internet access for 6 hours of the week since I’ve been here and I was issued a mobile phone that works very poorly so I feel very cut off from the world.
Poor little UNFPA, the UN agency that has hired me as a consultant, is relegated to an old storage facility in the basement of a building. The room reeks of mildew and has no ventilation as its two windows open onto the latrine and a garage where they park cars. I am outraged on behalf of my national counterpart – a young Myanmar doctor who is pregnant with her first child. She’s energetic and smart and working really hard with almost no support.  I’ve started squatting upstairs in the UNDP office and spending as much time on the balcony as
possible to breathe in the fresh air when it is not raining and using the time when I have the internet to lobby for a cleaning woman, a dehumidifier, and better office space. We don’t have our own car either so I travel by “tuktuk” to my meetings –it’s a far cry from most of the NGOs which have normal offices and houses and cars here. I
don’t mind the hardship of crappy offices. I’ve worked in tents, in mud huts, and in skyscrapers. A desk is a desk after all  - but the crappy office is a bit of a symbol of how little attention and care is given to the needs of the women who are displaced here in Rakhine State, in my mind. Of all the UN agencies in emergencies, UNFPA is one of the smallest. It doesn’t receive much money from the donors and its’ staff don’t seem to know how to respond to humanitarian emergencies – there is NO urgency. The staff in Yangon don’t prioritize the hinterlands and every request for something is challenged or ignored. Ahhh – life in the field. It’s frustrating being a consultant because I have no power at all but I’m going to use my voice to lobby for a healthier work place for my colleague. After all, I leave in 2 months but she has to work here.

UNFPA office - behind garage
If you haven’t read about it, here’s a brief synopsis: the humanitarian crisis here is a symptom of ethnic and religious violence in Burma – the majority Buddhist population here has been fighting with the Muslim community and burned down their houses and villages in October of 2012 driving them to live in scattered and remote IDP
(internally displaced) camps on rice paddies throughout this area. Most of the Moslems make their living as farmers or fishermen and as you might imagine, living in a rice paddy during the monsoon season is
miserable. I visited one of the best organized camps on Friday and it was very depressing. Because of the rains and the humidity, nothing remains or stays dry, most people only have one set of clothing and the children run around in the mud and rain with nothing but a small pair of shorts on. People have to live 10 to 12 families in a long bamboo thatched hut and most are not free to leave their camps so despair has set in along with the accompanying domestic violence and child beating. That’s why I’m here – to try to support the humanitarian community with training and advice on how to provide services for these women and children.
Rohingya girl
Many of the people are just waiting for the rains to stop so they can try to board really unsafe ships and seek out work in Malaysia, Bangladesh, and next door Thailand (where an immigration official was recently arrested for trafficking them to work on fishing boats as slave labor). They are known as the “Rohingya” and are a separate
ethnic group from the “Rakhines” in this area although they have been here for over 400 years. The Burmese government calls them “Bengalis” and claims they are Bangladeshi citizens and threaten to return them there although most have never been there and have no ties there. They are basically stateless (not recognized as an official ethnic group in Burma and therefor have no citizenship and belong to no government), persecuted by the governments of neighboring countries as well as the government here and are unwanted by everyone. It’s a really tough situation with no real solution at hand.

Rohingya boys in IDP camps
However, it’s a great group of people working here. The humanitarian world is really small – I got here and word got around and an Italian colleague from MSF who I met in Colombia in 2009 reached out to me and invited me to dinner last Friday night which was nice as there’s not much else to do in Sittwe. There is a movie theatre here but I think it only shows local films and is un-airconditioned (in this humidity and heat –it would be like sitting in a steam room with 100 people and watching a movie). There are a few local restaurants and tea houses but since its raining like mad, I’ve basically been holed up this weekend in my hotel room watching the BBC World coverage of the unrest in Cairo and Battlestar Galactica on my computer and reading training manuals and reports. I’ve caught up on any sleep I was missing in Thailand which is nice but I miss Simon, the Siamese cat and a variety of food. They have interesting salads here – and I am fond of a seaweed salad with sesame seeds and chilis that they make here. But mostly they use half a bottle of cooking oil to make anything here and
the food is swimming in oil and not very flavorful although seafood is plentiful since we’re on the sea so I eat squid and shrimp every day. I have been dreaming of spaghetti Bolognese and chocolate bars. But actually I’d be happy to have a big green salad.
IDP camp of Rakhine Buddhists also displaced during fighting
Well that’s it from here -  not much news to report. One year down as an independent consultant and the future is still unclear. I’ve got another 6 weeks work in Burma and then I’m back to Thailand where I’m presenting a paper and chairing a panel at an international conference on sexual violence. Then it’s back to Papua New Guinea for another month’s worth of work and then I’m free! I’m not enamored with the life as a consultant. The supposed “freedom” is not there yet as I still feel like I have to hustle for work and can’t turn anything down but I prefer being busy to not having enough to do. I think that makes me go a bit crazy. I still think I’d like to find an interesting
permanent job and settle down and stop traveling so much in 2014. I’ve been thinking of going back to graduate school – maybe in public health or social work but I’d also just like to have a steady job in a nice organization with a decent office and a nice house so I can hang out with Simon LeBon and have a normal life again. What’s that like? It’s been fun running around Asia but I’m a bit tired of always being on the move and fantasize about taking classes and setting up a routine and getting bored and longing for travel. It’s a vicious cycle, I guess!

Work Commute

Friday, May 03, 2013

Rebuttal to 10 Things Americans Don't Know about America

There's a blog post going around on Facebook that three of my favorite Americans in the Netherlands have posted and commented on approvingly.

It's written by an American living in Germany who wants us to know "10 Things Most Americans Don't Know About America".

You can read it here.

He posits that we're basically ignorant about geography, think that everyone loves us or hates us, are poor at expressing gratitude (which he rather confusingly equates with women feel free to tell him to fuck off when he hits on them in the US), the quality of life in the US is not that great, the rest of the world is not a shithole, we're paranoid, status-obsessed, unhealthy, and equate comfort with happiness.

I disagree with his points 1 (noone is impressed by us), 6 (the rest of the world is not a shithole), and 7 (we're paranoid). I'm a humanitarian aid worker born of a British mother and American father who has lived in Europe for 4 years and Asia for 2 years. I've traveled extensively and been throughout Africa, Asia, Europe, and some of the Pacific and Latin America. My opinion may be influenced by the fact that I spend a lot of time in slums and refugee camps with abused women.

For number 1, I have actually found that when I travel and people learn I am from America, they go out of their way to tell me how much they want to go there or how much they admire it. Perhaps its politeness but the USA has a hold on the imaginations of people around the world. Its also the most desired destination for people who cannot return home to their countries and are seeking third country placement. Also, in grad school for a research methods class, I did a qualitative project in a major 5 star hotel interviewing "immigrants" who worked there (almost everyone was!) about their perception of the USA and Americans. It was strongly influenced by where they came from. Northern Europeans with their social support system (cheaper education, healthcare, and beautiful cafes!) were hyper critical of the US. People who escaped repressive regimes, desperate poverty, and war were much more accepting of the US and its flaws and were grateful to have the opportunity to be there. If you compare our healthcare to Sweden or the nicest hospitals in Asia, we suck. If you compare them to the desperate places in Liberia, Haiti, or the Congo - we look pretty darn good. But even those critical Northern Europeans loved our music, our way of life, driving across the USA in a convertible and buying cowboy boots. They just didn't like to admit it openly. And the Brits I've met are the MOST critical about the USA! What British people is this guy meeting?

Also for number 6 (we think the rest of the world is a shit hole), for many of the people around the world, there is still such a thing as the American dream and they want a part of it. This may be because the places I go as compared to the author are almost always wartorn or suffering rather than cool bars in Hamburg and Berlin in Europe (its a German blog - I get to the cool bars in Hamburg and Berlin as much as I can). And the line in Bangkok (where I live) outside the US embassy for visas is always long and always busy - even if we have awesome cineplexs here, people still long for a country without corrupt police, politics, and fear of warfare (there is actually armed conflict in the South of Thailand). The wifi tuktuks are in Sukhumvit or Khao San where the tourists are  - if you are really in the know, you take a motorcycle taxi or a taxi because you don't want to be stuck in the  shitty traffic breathing exhaust when you can whiz between the lanes of traffic or sit in the a/c checking your own phone through Thailand's excellent 3G network.

And while he says most places are not as shitty as we imagine them to be, some are much worse... there are actually dangerous, awful parts of the world. Yes, people are friendly but Americans are also renowned as some of the friendliest people on earth. If you talk to aid workers or soldiers, they will always mention how hospitable and friendly the US contingents are... although hospitality is a trait that most of the world shares. The only place I have found people to be shockingly inhospitable has been the Netherlands where (as most taxi drivers there told me)  a dutch person will famously tell you that its dinnertime so its time for you to leave their house.

I put the fear that Americans have about other countries down to the fact that the US is a big country and its expensive for many to travel. And that fear sells the media - how often do you hear good stories about other countries? Or even our own? Most Americans aren't forced into foreign travel by economic desperation - like a lot of the rest of the world - so they aren't confronted with their misconceptions. This is a trivial little example but I was watching Flight of the Conchords last night and their mother in New Zealand was worrying about them in NYC and asking if they need a gun. The US is actually not as awful and dangerous as many Europeans seem to think it is. Many of them come to the US and react with surprise at how much they liked it!

Finally number 7 - we're paranoid due to our media but also amazing naive in foreign countries. We blithely think we won't be touched by the crime and corruption in other countries. But this also strikes me as white privilege.  I heard some stories a few months ago about african-americans in Europe who were beaten up and almost deported by the police in Greece (despite being professors who were traveling there). Some Americans in Dubai, Qatar and Thailand and have been shocked to find themselves on the wrong side of the law and detained indefinitely in the shitty prisons in these countries - there is a news story in Thailand about a man who had a dispute with his landlord and has een detained in Thailand for 9 years! And the stories you hear about what happens to travelers who don't happen to be rich enough (thanks to our great but floundering US economy) throughout the rest of the world will make your hair curl. Bangladeshis, Indians, Filipinos, and Sri Lankans who travel to the Middle East hoping to make money to support their families back home live in appalling conditions and are desperately treated. It's thanks to our economic privilege and probably due to the color of our skins that we can travel around and be treated well in other countries. Like the US, all countries have good and bad people living in them. But normally, we get to experience it through our privilege.

A friend who commented on Facebook like me also pointed out his very sexist assumption about women too. In many countries, women have no choice but to be friendly to some dude who comes up to them on the street and hits on them in such an obvious way - they are afriad they'll be raped or attacked if they don't play along and act nice. And the sexual and physical violence that women face in many of the countries in the world is shocking and heart breaking.

TL:DR - the author is shocking in his naivete about the rest of the world and bases his opinions most probably on his experiences in the privileged white world of the middle class American traveler who can afford to rent nice apartments in the nice parts of town (usually the expat part of town) and thinks he's discovered that the US is awful.

The USA might not be the best country in the world but its still a great country - it has a lot to change and a lot to address (like everyone else here has said - healthcare! guns!). I was feeling the same way about wondering why the US was so nuts now with the politics and the violence until I went back home with open eyes to participate in our electoral process to elect our African-American president who was raised in Indonesia, Hawaii, Kansas, California, and NYC. There was nary a riot. There was singing and smiling in the electoral center where i went in Sumter, SC where predominantly African Americans lined up to re-elect Barry Obama, the whitest guy in town.

The USA is great! Food trucks! Great new live music everywhere - from the blues to jazz to rock and roll! The organic food revolution - which has been going on in South Carolina since at least the 90s when I was working in an organic food market! The streams of different cultures that have all put their own stamp on what being American is (a Korean bulgogi taco served with a Belgian beer in South Carolina!) but if you look at the level of innovation and creativity going on in the USA and stop just watching the news media about it and go visit. I apologize in advance for our immigration officers at the airport... but its not such a bad place.