Monday, January 04, 2016

Happy New Year 2016.... 2015 Done and Dusted....

"South Carolina" Martin and the Temple of Doom
Happy New Year! 2015 was another crazy year of travel for me. I feel rather exhausted and my body reminded me that I"m human on December 30th as I shivered and shook with a fever on the Mekong Delta and coughed so violently I bruised my ribs. So the year in stats: 17 countries (including new ones like Israel and old favorites like South Africa) and 161, 200 miles (according to I apologize to the planet for the global warming and to my body for the economy class seating. Some highlights of the year follow: 

In January, I took some time to work on my different consultancies from Qatar and to be aunty to my college roommate Ann-Michelle's little boy Alexander and try on the life of an expat Mom living in a gated compound. Not so much for me although the parties are pretty fun. I have so much more respect now for working moms. The guilt! The inability to do anything as well as you would like! Wow... but hanging out with Alexander was wonderful. He's such a sweet and funny little guy and kept me on my toes with his disciplinary ways. 

Me and Alexander
In February, I taught a course at the Red Crescent in Saudi Arabia to 30 Saudi men and 1 woman on gender in humanitarian response. This was my second, and (inshallah) last trip to the "Kingdom". I saw nothing except Subway and McDonald's as I was not allowed to wander freely. Its amazing how free and liberated Qatar feels after a week in Saudi. To rebel against the draconian clothing laws for women in Saudi, I wore as little as possible under my abbaya and delighted in going to the breakfast buffet in my skivvies. You can make me wear an abbaya but you can't make me be a decent woman!

Saudi Men and Me
In March, I had a fantastic fun trip to Luang Prabang where I learned all about German efficiency with vacation planning in the slowest country in SE Asia: Lao PDR (which stands for please don't rush). Four German men and me. Luang Prabang is probably one of my favorite places in SE Asia. So beautiful and with such great food. From Laos, I rushed off to work in Brindisi, Italy where I managed to bring back about 15 kg of Italian products in my suitcase including five bottles of wine. I'm so happy the Thai immigration usually ignores me. Focus on the ivory smugglers and men with turtles and frogs strapped to their bodies, guys! I need decently priced wine! I also went to see the Golden Triangle in Chiang Rai, Thailand on the border with Myanmar and Laos. It was nice but a bit of a let down. I expected something other than a tacky photo opp on the Mekong river.  I don't know what I expected - opium dens, pith helmets, and poppies I guess. 

Four Fabulous Germans plus me and some other guy
From April through September, I took a 3 month assignment in Jordan to work with Syrian refugees (that turned into a six month assignment).  It was a great opportunity to explore the Middle East where I had only briefly visited in 2006 during the Israel-Lebanon conflict. I also had been wanting to work on the world's largest Refugee crisis in some way so I got the opportunity to be the Senior Gender Advisor to the Syrian Refugee Crisis in Jordan where I was hosted by UNHCR. I met some fantastic people at work and also took almost every weekend to see the sights and see friends working in the region.

Zatari Camp, Jordan
Azraq Camp, Jordan
Syrian child playing near latrines in Azraq Camp, Jordan.
Jordan is a traveler's delight. I went to the Dead Sea and Petra almost immediately but as well as these spectacular natural wonders there are also crusader castles (and defense against crusaders castles), Roman ruins like Jerash and Philadelphia (Amman's previous name), and the spectacular nature including waterfalls and thermal baths, caverns, mountain ranges, olive trees, and so many religious spots! Even though its a small country, I didn't even get to make it to Wadi Rum to live out my Lawrence of Arabia fantasy or to the Red Sea. So I want to go back.
At Artemis' temple in Jerash!
I also traveled to Lebanon, Turkey, and Israel several times. It was my first time in Israel and I was really amazed. I highly recommend doing the land crossing between Israel and Jordan so you can experience the prejudice against Palestinians up close.  Otherwise, its easy to get lost in the gorgeous mediterranean, the fantastic food (oh the food... I am in love with the food), and the good looking surfers (the food may be even better than the surfers). Luckily, I had my friends who devote their time to working in Gaza and the West Bank to keep it balanced by reminding me of what happens there and also to be friends with Israelis who could share what its like to live in a region where everyone seems hellbent on killing you (I'm sure I've offended someone with this sentence - I've given up trying not to... such is Israel and the politics around it). Israel is such a land of contrasts. For me,  on my US passport with my white skin - I was treated well. For other American friends with dark skin or those not on US passports- the experience is quite different. Its an extremely polarized and militarized society. But on the other hand, it was a huge relief to be free from the non-stop sexual harassment and stares from the men in Jordan. Jaffa, where I spent my holiday, is like a little California beach town with flea markets, great food, hip youngsters, and cute hippies and surfers all together. The only time it felt like the Middle East to me was on Eid when the Palestinian families came down to relax on the beach. Shishas and abbayas galore (along with the requisite sexual harassment too, sadly). 

Byblos, Lebanon

Enjoying Vacation in Beirut, Lebanon
Returning to my hippie roots in Jaffa, Israel
In September, my sister Alyson came out to visit me for her birthday. We went straight from the airport to Petra for a full day of Indiana Jones and shouting at rude Bedouin donkey salesmen. We relaxed for the remaining two days at a luxury resort on the Dead Sea, and she spent the next two weeks exploring Jordan while I worked.  It was great to have her with me. Then we went off to Cairo, Egypt for the tours of the pyramids. It was wonderful to see Egypt's wonders in relative solitude but also sad to see Egypt's tourism in tatters due to the violence in the region. It did make for an undisturbed visit as we didn't have to deal with huge crowds or aggressive salesmen. Alyson officially became the fourth person in our family to go to Egypt but unlike Dad and I, she was not ripped off by camel owners behind the pyramid. My hard lesson learned in 2005 saw to that. We tried to support everyone by buying the standard camel rides, perfume, papyrus, bric-a-brac and drinking as much mint tea as humanly possible. 

Martin Sisters in Petra

What you look like after a day at Petra
More Martin Sisters and Camels
Me and my new Egyptian boyfriend
Alyson and I overlooking Cairo
My graceful Camel riding in Egypt
Alyson and I looking quite adventuresome
After my assignment with UNHCR ended, I returned to Thailand via Stellenbosch, the premier wine town near Cape Town, South Africa to present some papers at the Sexual Violence Research Initiative and to see some friends. Its an amazing opportunity to be with some of the smartest and most dedicated researchers on this topic and to catch up with old friends who I've worked with. For an experienced traveler, I made a serious error in going back with all my luggage leaving me unable to bring but ONE bottle of fantastic South African wine back with me to Thailand. I then spent about 3 days at home in Bangkok and then went to Kyoto, Japan for the fantastic wedding of dear friends. Autumn in Japan is spectacular.  We ate like kings (or rather samarui) at the wedding and spent long laughter filled nights in Kyoto's pleasure quarters drinking sake, eating gyoza and okonomiyaki (famous pancakes) and making friends and singing. 

Presenting at SVRI
Good Food with Rebecca in Singapore
Photobombed by Kathy in Kyoto, Japan

Human Rights Ladies and our Token Man at Onsen in Japan
In October, a dear friend- Gus Osorio- died. He and I worked as "office neighbors" at JSI from 2000-2003 in DC. We were in a book club together and he came to visit me in Amsterdam and we went to London together. Our last conversation was about a month before he died when I was trying to entice him to come to Asia. I'll miss his big heart, beautiful blue eyes, and warm and funny ways. On the night he died, I was sitting at a bar on the Mekong in Vientiane Laos and saw a meteorite which lit up the whole sky in green. I'm sure it was Gus telling me he was hanging out with MCA from the Beastie Boys in heaven and kicking the jams out. RIP dear friend. 

October 27, 2015 was also a big day as this is the day I became a British Citizen as well (I am retaining my US citizenship - its dual nationality for me now!). My mother was born and raised in Wiltshire in the United Kingdom and when I was born, British women weren't allowed to pass on their citizenship to their children (not until 1981... the whole citizenship game is super sexist world-wide). After years of randomly asking whether or not I qualified for citizenship, I got a definitive answer in 2014 from an immigration lawyer and applied. I was granted and sworn in at a lovely private ceremony in the UK embassy in Bangkok with two of my close British friends, Ross and Vanessa Self in attendance. They wanted to take me out to the pub for a beer but it was a Thai Buddhist holiday so none of the sketchy pubs that cater to British sexpats would serve us beer. So in despair we headed to the Harrod's in the fancy mall for a cup of tea. Vanessa decided to ask for a glass of bubbly and they either didn't realize or didn't care about the alcohol ban so we celebrated with a luncheon of roasts and some pints and bubbles and Victoria sponge. Ross and Vanessa told me that "This is your new British super power, the ability to drink in any place in the world." In all seriousness, I was surprised at how emotional I felt and I really missed my mother but felt she was there with me.  

In November, I accepted a new job as Regional Emergency GBV Advisor for the global Gender-based violence in emergencies working group. I'm trying on the job as they have only offered me a contract through February and I"m not sure if I want to stay in Asia that long or commit to a job (consultant life gets under your skin even if I did complain about it the whole time). I'm working in SouthEast Asia and the Pacific helping build capacity to respond to gender-based violence in emergencies. This region is mostly natural disasters and after working in Syria, I feel anxious to go back to working on conflict and displacements. I hope to do some good though while i"m in the position. I had to go to Geneva for meetings and to pick up a visa so I got to spend most of the first two weeks on the job in Europe.
Me and Simon
It was good to be back in Europe and I saw lots of familiar faces and packed in a trip to Hamburg and Berlin in Germany. In Berlin, I got to have Thanksgiving dinner with my bestie from Sumter, Mike Dumiak. He opened up his home to me (even though in the middle of writing a book!) and we invited a Syrian refugee, O, to join us. O and I met in Amman on a blind date and became friends after I realized that as a humanitarian aid worker I am not allowed to date refugees! O was working as a logistics officer in freight forwarded in Damascus for several years after his mandatory army service. He loves politics and hates Assad so got heavily involved in the political uprising in 2011. He was arrested and kept in prison and fled to Jordan when he was released in 2012. He stayed in Jordan for three years trying to work legally or illegally (its illegal for Syrian refugees to work in Jordan). He was a registered refugee living with three other young single men and waiting to be resettled in a third country. His family had escaped later to Egypt but the borders were closed so he couldn't join them. They were a middle class family but money was running out for them. He found out that his claim to be resettled was rejected so he had to take the extreme step of going to Europe with the traffickers in August of this year. I followed him as he texted me from Turkey where he flew on his Syrian passport to Greece where he went on one of those boats you see on the news, up through Macedonia where they were beaten by border guards, to Serbia on to Austria and finally to Germany. He's now living in a refugee settlement sharing a house with about 9 other Syrian men about a hour outside of Berlin where he's enrolled in some free college courses for refugees, is learning German, and trying to settle in. Its not easy. While I was in Germany, the attack in Paris happened and the attitude towards Syrians has hardened. It's maddening to listen to the news of Donald Trump and others in the US and listen to the idiots on the internet go on about how Syrian men should be "fighting for their country" (on what side? Against who? And with what training? That war is so complex... I've asked him to explain it to me several times and get confused each time). O says he'll never return to the Middle East as Europe has opened its arms to him and he wants to repay it. He's a hardworking and smart guy (who does a great Michael Jackson impersonation) so I'm hoping the new year will bring him more peace and stability. It was good to be reminded of the traditions of America in Mike's little German apartment as I made turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce for the two of them. 

So now its the new year and I'm tired!  What an exhausting but fulfilling year. New and old friends, being with family, travel, meaningful work, new countries, and exciting new food (Israel was a revelation!). What more could anyone wish for? Thanks to all the friends - old and new- that I saw or chatted with in 2015. You are the best! 2016 will have a hard time topping it but I sense positive change is in the air. Stay tuned for news. I enclose some photos and a great recipe for my favorite hot sauce of the year.  

Me by the end of 2015 - feeling a little tired and worn out.
Wishing you all a lovely and exciting New Year! May 2016 bring you adventure and passion!


Thursday, July 30, 2015

Taxi Cab Wars in Amman

One of the things you have to put up with when you are an expat is the battle against the Taxi Cabs. Cab drivers around the world can be your ambassador to the country or city and sometimes they can really turn you off from a city. In Amsterdam, the taxi guys who worked the Centraal Train Station were crooks. I learned to direct them to the police station that shared an address with my house if they were refusing to use the meter there. In DC, it was so bad, they made a movie about it starring Mr. T

In Bangkok, we all have stories of the crazy cab drivers... refusing to take you places, dumping you off on the side of the highwayrefusing to use their meters, charging $25 to go two blocks, discrimination, clipping toenails and snorting weird substances and if you aren't lucky, murdering their customers.
I thought at first that Amman, Jordan might be a bit easier than Thailand. My first three months went okay aside from loud "bellydancer" music and the non stop smoking in the cabs. But last night was apparently the beginning of the end of my honeymoon period. 

After stopping three times on my normally 20 minute ride home last night (for water for himself, to check the oil in the car, to add more oil to the car), the taxi cab pulled over four times to ask for directions to the very famous shopping mall (Taj Mall) I gave him as a landmark. He managed to get himself lost in the valleys around Abdoun. We went under the bridge four times. Finally, he got another taxi driver to lead him to where we were going. At this point, I had been in the taxi about an hour and he had had 10 cigarettes and the sun had set.

We finally arrive at our destination and the meter says 3.75. I had him a 5 and wait with my hand outstretched for my change. He makes a lame attempt to look in his pocket and says no change. We're in front of several restaurants, a 7-11 type place and a liquor store. So I say, i only have 5 or 2 JD. No change! No change! So I throw the 2 JD at him and get out of the cab. I walk into the liquor store to avoid him. He starts complaining to the myriad Jordanian men who hang out in front of liquor stores about me. They come in and say "Miss, he says you only paid him 2JD and he took you here all the way from Khalda". My dander gets up "He stopped three times, got lost, took an hour and then tried to cheat me! " I said - "Ignore him, he knows what he did." The liqour store advocate agrees with me and goes out and yells at the taxi driver. The incompetent taxi man keeps going around and complaining about me to all the other men hanging in front of the liquor store.

Another one comes in to complain for him to me. "YOU DO NOT WANT TO GET IN THE MIDDLE OF THIS!" I said with a fiery face. They all looked frightened. I came outside - yelled at the taxi driver some more and then went into the restaurant to meet my friend. The valet parker comes over to talk to the maitre d while I'm waiting to be seated to say what the taxi driver said. "DO NOT GET IN THE MIDDLE OF THIS!" I shouted, "He tried to cheat me, he was incompetent and I am not going to pay him a penny more." At this point, I was ready to give him 5 JD just to get rid of him but I really hated the idea of being bullied and cheated. I went into the ladies room. A Jordanian-American woman asked me what was wrong, I told her. She agreed with me. She said, "IF anyone gives you any trouble, I will help you. You just call me." I went back outside and asked for a table for two. Everyone looked at each other, shrugged, and that was the end of that.

I, however, needed three beers to calm down.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

An ode from 2011 to a former love

I have fallen head over heels with a Swedish peacekeeper. He smells of sunshine and herring. We talk about curry and war and when he makes love to me, he sounds like a seal pup. I want to cling to him like a starfish on a rock but he went back to Sweden after a perfect day of sunshine and scallops.

First time I was published

For those of you who know about my love life travails, here's something that might point out some patterns I've been in for a long time! In 1999, I wrote a letter to Garrison Keillor who was writing an advice column for at the time.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I've fallen in love! He plays me Joni Mitchell CDs, sends me poetry, feeds me Cherry Garcia. We talk for hours at a time. He is teaching me how to zydeco dance and I'm teaching him about social justice in Guatemala. He makes me laugh and I'm not afraid to sing around him. After seven years of numbness brought on by a terrible relationship, the death of my mother and a bout with clinical depression, I feel alive again and happy and ready to trust and open up my heart. I'm writing again and finally feel like a whole person. I feel calm and giddy at the same time.

There is one problem: He has a girlfriend of almost three years and didn't tell me that until after we had begun dating. Yes, that's a big problem. He has told me that he loves her and will not leave her right now but he is falling in love with me. I am afraid that when the hurt comes, it will numb me for another seven years. I want him in my life. Should I trust my heart and open up and love and deal with the pain later? Or should I trust my women friends who tell me not to have anything to do with a man who is deceiving his girlfriend? It is hard to think of turning my back on this happiness after having been miserable for so long.

Swept Away

Dear Swept,

It's too bad that, underneath all the singing and zydeco and poetry and Cherry Garcia, there is a lie sticking up like a post. He started dating you while he was still with a girlfriend whom he loves. The man is confused, at best, and you need to clarify the situation for him by creating some distance here. Stop sleeping with him, for one thing. If you want to rescue the relationship, you need to ease back to the beginning and rebuild on honest foundations. And he needs to deal with the girlfriend, whom he is still lying to, apparently. You're not going to slip back into seven years of depression -- you already did that, and it's over. You may get angry at him for seducing you so well, but that's different. This man is not the cause of your happiness; he is only the vehicle. He's the actor you choose to play opposite you in scenes that you yourself create out of the lavish abundance of your heart, and if the vehicle crashes, if the actor walks out, you still have that abundance to take elsewhere. You won't crash if he drops you, because you're not a puppet. You can sing anywhere you like.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

2014: A Year in Movies in Bangkok

It was another dire year in movies in Bangkok. As per the trend, they mostly play the big blockbusters and I either have to download or watch other films on the plane. I long for the E Street Cinema in Washington DC. Bangkok could be a world class city if they improved their movies. Oh well.

(Key: I saw everything in the theatre unless its noted *Download ** Airplane)

The Good: 
Grand Budapest Hotel: My favorite movie of 2014. I had to wait until August to see it on the big screen in Bangkok and it was worth it. Ralph Fiennes is excellent and it was much darker than some of his other movies (although I remember the Life Aquatic with Steve Zazou being dark).

Dallas Buyer's Club: Matthew McConaughey continues to amaze. Funny, raunchy, and sad all at once. Jared Leto was also wonderful. This "honest trailer" got it right. Yeah - I know it was from 2013 but didn't come to BKK until 2014.

12 Years a Slave: burned a hole right through my soul and made me hate the South and everything it currently stands for. How dare we? Same - didn't see it until 2014.

Neighbors: I'm in love with Zac Efron. Period. This one was funny and not as offensive to women as I expected. Rose Byrnes was excellent.

Begin Again: sweet music, even Adam Levine seemed sweet in it.

Snow piercer*: Chris Evans almost unrecognizable but an amazing adventure film. Love post apocalypse films.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: I was rooting for the Damn Dirty Apes over the humans.

Godzilla: EXCELLENT. Atomic breath! Not enough panicked crowd scenes.

Fury: Couldn't believe how good the tank battles were. I have liked the director, David Ayer, ever since I saw End of Watch. Also a major miracle, Shia LaBouef was not that obnoxious. Michael Pena, excellent as always.

Edge of Tomorrow**: Singlehandedly turned me back into a Tom Cruise fan. Something about watching him die over and over again and being pathetic at the beginning brought me back to him. Plus Emily Blount as the Full Metal Bitch was wonderful!

Gone Girl: Really good and intense. The whole theatre was rapt. At one point, bitter married couples laughed bitterly. My single friend and I were shocked.  Love the "Cool Girl" speech.

Guardians of the Galaxy*: Surprised the hell out of me. I really liked it but then again I've always been a fan of Chris Pratt since Everwood so it shouldn't have surprised me that much. But I was really not interested in seeing a movie about a raccoon and a tree. Color me impressed.

Alan Partridge*: Superb! And so so funny. I love Steve Coogan.

Behind the Candelabra*: amazing performance by Matt Damon and Michael Douglas. Creepy. Even with plastic surgery to look like Liberace, Matt Damon is awesome. Rob Lowe was also insane!

Jiho Dreams of Sushi*: really beautiful and compelling.

In the Mood for Love*: Finally saw it in a hotel room in Myitkyina, Kachin, Myanmar. Made me crave noodles, nostalgia, and thwarted love.

Dom Hemingway**: Saw it on a plane. I love Jude Law because he's more than just a pretty face. And he was intense in this. And I loved that he didn't force Daenerys from Game of Thrones to be his girlfriend. She was his daughter instead. No vanity.

The Bad (Actually the Mediocre):
Inside Llewyn Davis - I don't know what all the hoopla was about except for the main actor was intense and hot. A bit disappointed in the Coen brothers. But I loved the orange cat!

The Fault in our Stars - not moved. I don't think I even cried. I don't know. Maybe I'm dead inside.

Maleficent:  hard to see Angelina as a fairy after the summit! A bit dull and could have been written to be more powerful. I loved the Lana Del Ray song and I actually like the rape analogy.

**The Two Faces of January: Pretty good. I love Viggo Mortenson and Oscaar Isaacs

The Railway Man: A bit dull but awesome to see Thailand on the big screen.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier ... I"m in love with Chris Evans. I believe in Captain America.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay pt 1: Not as good as it should have been. I would have liked a bit more Orwellian scenes like when she's in District 13 and a little more "If we burn, you burn with us!" 

**X Men: Days of Future Past: I also love Michael Fassbender and Wolverine so it worked for me. I loved the 70s aesthetic. The present day story of Mystique’s vendetta against Peter Dinklage‘s Trask feels repetitive of ideas we explored in the previous films…with thoughtful social commentary they were interested in exploring years ago  left on the floor, offering the audience only in your face statements.

Long Way Down**: I thought it would be excellent. Nick Hornby. Pierce Brosnan. Toni Collette. Can Jesse Pinkman be serious? The answer. Not so much. Just not quite as good as About a Boy or High Fidelity.

The Ugly: 
The Hobbit 3: Ridiculous. The special effects were not good at all! Legolas running up the collapsing bridge? And the ridiculous animals they all rode into battle? Bored. The honest trailer below sums up this one too.

Bad Words: Terrible Edit in Doha. they edited out all the bad language, the sex, and the "immoral scenes", I think it was 20 minutes long and incomprehensible. It might have been good and funny but I would never know.

Noah**: Good Lord! I couldn't believe how they managed to make this tale so boring and annoying! No shots of animals??? And even Emma Watson was bad in it. The dialogue was ridiculous and I didn't like the Nephilim/ Watchers/Rock Giants/Fallen Angels.

Lucy: Stupid stupid stupid. The smartest woman in the world battles it out in 5 inch stilettos and a dour look on her face. Buzzfeed sums up the stupidity.

Her: Stupid Stupid Stupid. I have never wanted to walk out of a movie so badly.

The Maze Runner: Actually walked out of it. So boring and trite.