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.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

From Snowstorms to Military Coup, 2014 was quite a year

As per usual, 2014 has been a year filled with travel and adventure. I am a consultant specializing in gender-based violence in humanitarian crises currently and based in Thailand but on a short term visa so I have to come and go from my apartment in Bangkok every 30 days. Normally, that corresponds with travel for work but sometimes I have to make a “visa run” – which is usually quite nice as Thailand has inexpensive flights, lots of great neighbors, and there are interesting places to go! But the travel is exhausting. If my 25 year old self who dreamed of traveling the world could hear me now, she would probably faint-  what do you MEAN that you are tired of traveling?

Here’s a little snapshot of my travels in 2014:
20 trips * 193 days * 131,541 miles * 42 cities *16 countries

I have one more trip left for the new year – I’m off to Japan for my visa run and I will spend a couple of days in a lovely looking zen Buddhism retreat to try to gain strength for next year. I hope it will be restorative!

So last year, I started out the New Year in the USA with my sister, Alyson. We took a road trip to Florida but sadly that coincided with the polar vortex so no beach for us. That was fine with me since I live in the tropics but Alyson was a bit sad. She was also very tolerant as I took over the social media and liveblogged, tweeted, and instagrammed our road trip. Although it was cold, we stopped by Amelia Island and Savannah as well as meeting Winter the dolphin and seeing some manatees at a power plant.

In February, I went to Bali, Indonesia for an extended trip trying to sit down and really start writing (something that I’ve been wanting to do ever since I was a little girl and wrote my first story about the Princess Sarah and her nemesis, the man in the pickle suit). I found out that writer’s block is a more powerful nemesis than the man in the pickle suit[1]. Ubud is so lovely and beautiful! I consulted an astro-cartographer, as one does while in Bali, to find out where in the world I should move to find love… sadly the answer was Antarctica. Meh. My friend Kaya, the mathmetician, has disputed that analysis and believes my love line is actually the line that runs through Addis –Kiev- Beirut. Maybe in 2015!

I made it back to Washington DC in March to see my dear friend Diana Prieto marry and I danced so enthusiastically at her wedding that I managed to rip out my hem of my dress with my high heel during a polka. I also managed to get trapped on a Qatar Airline flight in a snowstorm sitting at the gate in Dulles for 12 hours. That was fairly miserable and was compounded by flying directly from DC to Rakhine state (via Doha and Yangon) which is a place on the Burma-Bangladesh border that is caught up in discrimination and displacement of Muslim Rohingya by chauvinist Buddhists lead by some extremely radical monks.  I ended up caught up in the riots against aid workers in Rakhine State. It was all very tense but in the end, I was fine and was evacuated back to Yangon where I joined a bunch of other aid workers in a sparkling wine filled brunch-debrief-argument that helped us all decompress. From a polka party to a snowstorm to attacks by Buddhist monks! What a trip!

I took a little break by going to one of the most beautiful beaches in Thailand – Koh Phangan – and managed to avoid the infamous Full Moon party. I’m really getting old now, I guess. I preferred hanging out under the actual full moon and taking a swim alone rather than drinking buckets of beer and watching people vomit in the sea. YOUTHS!

I then returned to Myanmar where I worked up on the border with China in a fascinating place called Kachin State where I got to hang out with my friend Marise from MSF, ride bicycles around the town, get a massage by a blind man, and visit the “confluence” of the N’mai and Mali rivers where the Irrawaddy river is born. It’s a very important place for the Kachin people – a place that may soon disappear due to the construction of the 7 dam Irrawaddy project. Local people have been forcibly relocated from around the area and large scale mechanized gold mining and logging projects have destroyed large areas as well as polluting the Irrawaddy river. At one point, I was told, the river was so pristine that it was crystal clear. Not so much anymore but it was a nice day out to a remote spot- luckily we were not kidnapped like the three government workers who also went to the confluence that day for a picnic.

I returned back to Thailand just in time to experience martial law and the Military coup in May!  The Thai military coup was so “Thai” and so not as dramatic as the news made it out to be. I was getting a pedicure in the afternoon and preparing to go meet someone to interview them for my consultancy when we entered into a fashionable coffee shop/chocolate shop. We ordered and the waiter seemed very agitated and told us we would have to eat fast and then said MARTIAL LAW MARTIAL LAW! We broke out our smart phones, found out that martial law had been declared and there was a 10pm curfew so we finished our lattes and headed home. The Sky Train was completely crowded and people were swarming the ubiquitous 7-11s to just to stock up on alcohol. My friend Jordan came up to hang out that night and told me he had been headbutted by a desperate expat man in the 7-11 trying to get a case of beer. So my neighbors Rebecca, Jordan and I sat around listening to the cheery nationalistic Siamese martial music being broadcast on every single tv station and played Cards Against Humanity while sipping gin and tonics. What a very expat experience. My first coup (well actualy there was an attempted coup in Darfur when I was there in 2004 but they didn’t succeed and the only way we knew it had happened is they took all the sat phones and mobile phones off line).  

Life under the military regime has not been very different. We all panicked when they threatened to tighten immigration and we became very sad when they closed up all the VW Bus/bars that lined Soi 11 near my house at night. Apparently you can’t eat a sandwich in public or read George Orwell as it’s a protest now and in very Thai style, the three finger salute from the Hunger Games is now used in protest. But other than that – the non-stop unbridled capitalism, hedonism, and eating continues apace.

After I finished my work in Myanmar, I managed to win an 8 month contract with the UN that was home-based so I hoped it would help me stay home a bit more. Wrong! I was immediately brought to NYC for a meeting, which was nice as New York in May is wonderful! I also flew from NYC via Abu Dhabi to London for a big summit to end sexual violence in conflict in London where I got to finally meet Angelina Jolie! The best part of the whole conference was that I was quoted in US Weekly about Brad Pitt! From there I flew to Qatar where I waited for a visa for my next crazy adventure – teaching about gender and disasters to the Saudi Red Crescent! 

Well, now you can guess where my Xmas photo was taken. Luckily, my college roommate, Ann-Michelle lives in Doha and I got to hang out with her and her fantastic husband and kids for 10 days and she loaned me an abaya – the mandatory long black coat that all women in Saudi Arabia wear with a headscarf. What you can’t really tell in the photo is how beautifully it is embroidered with black sequins and thread. Every single woman wears a very different abaya and I found myself checking them out to see their fashion sense. Saudi Arabia was a very interesting experience. The people that I met were both incredibly hospitable and sweet to me but I also faced some of the worst sexism I’ve had to experience in my life (which thankfully has not been very much). The highlight of the trip was the flight out of Riyadh back to Doha. It was the last day before Ramadan and all of the domestic workers were all rushing home for holiday. It was like boarding the last flight out of Saigon as hundreds of Filipino, Pakistan, Bangladeshi, Indian, and African workers pushed and shoved their way onto the fully booked Dreamliner in desperation. I got caught up in the hysteria as several waist-high women used me as a battering ram to push us onto the plane. I have never been so happy to land in Doha. It looked like a desert oasis after the run down, dusty Riyadh. I felt like I might have overdone it that night for Ann-Michelle’s birthday as I chowed down on pork, drank champagne, and danced in a minidress until sunrise. That’s what Saudi does to you though…
I returned to Europe for my summer vacation – finally facing the dreaded task of clearing out my storage unit in Amsterdam (which true to form, I procrastinated on until the very last day before I had to fly back) and celebrated a spectacular birthday in Berlin and Poland with my bestie Mike Dumiak before heading to the gorgeous chateau in the Loire Valley with a group of friends for non stop wine tasting (a repeat from 2011)…

I finished up the year by returning to the US in October to visit my cousin Catherine who is ill in Topeka, Kansas and it was nice to spend even a few days with her and Emil in America’s heartland. I returned to NYC to run a workshop and then Alyson and I met up in Toronto, Canada where we visited Niagara Falls – a place both of us have always wanted to see! I was thrilled to be able to ride on the “Horatio Hornblower” and get completely soaking wet by the power of the falls.

The end of the year was a blur of travel to Malaysia, Philippines, Myanmar, and work work work. I made a couple of short trips to the gorgeous Thai beaches of Koh Samet and Railay beach and cooked and consumed some amazing meals. I’ve been privileged to see so much of the world this year – and to have the love of family and friends. 2014 gave us the war in Gaza, the massacres in Pakistan, the ebola epidemic, the crashes of the Malaysia airline flights, the kidnapping of young women by Boko Haram in Nigeria, the sinking of the ferry in Korea, the horrible beheadings by ISIL, and the horrific murders of children in Pakistan. But I hope my silly stories of my adventures around the world can give a little laugh at the end of the year. I still believe in universal human rights, speaking truth to power, fighting for justice and gender equality and the power of a good bottle of red wine and an Ottolenghi cookbook to change the world.

I wish you and your loved ones an adventuresome, peaceful, tasty, and loving 2015!

[1] my father, incidentally