Monday, April 25, 2016

My Review of Guapa: My favorite book of 2016


GuapaGuapa by Saleem Haddad
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was written by my good friend Saleem Haddad - I met him when we worked together at Medecins Sans Frontieres and I recognized a special guy in that crowded London office. My review: I still think about things in this novel 10 days later - something that hasn't happened to me in a while. I recognized so many things in it that called out to me: Rasa's relationship with his Teta- their morning rituals, the silence around his father's fate, the living in a type of mausoleum but also the pain he felt around his mother and the suffocating silence. I'm not Arab but I grew up in a British household and felt many of those same emotions choking inside of me which I think is what makes me so hellbent on being open and speaking about all my taboos now. It made me really thing about the burden of being closeted and what it does to your emotions.

Things I loved: I felt so frustrated and angry at the scene in the wedding. it was so realistic - the whispered drunken asides from his shallow female friend, the mess of angst and emotion and love swirling around inside Rasa as he steadily drinks and argues with the waiter over his change. I just wanted a Hollywood happy ending - run off together! Be together. But that's not life. And the chaos towards the end was necessary. His mother crying as she chopped onions. His self-centered French friend and being forced out of embarrassment to accept the homeless man as his roommate.

Like some other reviewers, I think I would have liked more life inside Guapa. His friend Maj was the most uplifting character but I also wanted more of everything - more lush descriptions of falling in love, more lazy nights tangoing in a sequestered bedroom, more driving around tense parts of town, more revolution. I guess we can't have it all.

I also felt as if I shared Rasa's fatigue at the end of the novel - and that makes me think that the author did his job. My emotions were everywhere as I read it. And to me that is what I am looking for in reading - plunging into another world.

Thanks Saleem- for a fantastic novel. Can't wait to read number 2.




View all my reviews

Saturday, March 05, 2016

A little creative writing....

After years of ridicule, a gossip columnist receives a very important phone call (a writing prompt)

It wasn’t supposed to end up this way. Originally, I was to become the female Bob Woodward – investigative journalist, truth teller, defender of the free world, protector of the innocent. But after years of slaving away at the Metro section and never uncovering a true scoop, I started idly entertaining myself with catty, snarky, observations of the politicians I covered. I started a blog about the foibles of the Washington DC policy wonks I continuously ran into at parties and events that I covered for the lesser known of the big city dailies in DC. My mean “mot juste” from “CYNICAL INSIDER” hit a certain chord in a city not known for its compassion.

I got picked up by the larger DC gossip column – “Wonkette” and my pieces got more attention. I loved hearing that people were quoting me at parties. “Did you hear what Cynical Insider said about Clinton? How getting more botox might help her win over Pakistan more than wearing those unflattering pantsuits?” – I got a rush… that was me! But of course, I couldn’t tell them that. I was still incognito and it wasn’t like Wonkette was paying much. I got $50 an article and a percentage of the ad revenue from clicks driven by my page. I relied on my daily job at The Washington Daily Star covering committee hearings to pay the rent in my one bedroom in Columbia Heights.

Then it happened; I got drunk one night and decided to brag to my latest conquest from Match.com. Adam was a typical arrogant Washington DC guy who worked for Representative WhoCares from BumFuck, USA and full of himself. Over dinner at an overpriced Ethiopian restaurant on 18th street, he bragged about his influence and how he knew Senator so and so and Congressman this and that. I had had too much beer and the lentils and injera were swelling unpleasantly in my belly. I wanted to get out of there. It didn’t look like I was going to get laid so I just decided to cut to the chase. “Yeah – you’re very important.” I said sarcastically. “But you don’t know the real shit going on in DC…all you see are unimportant nobodies.”

“How would you know?” he demanded, his fragile ego wounded.

“Because I know your Rep is known as an idiot do nothing and is sleeping with her intern. And everyone laughs at her behind her back and no one invites her to the parties with the big dogs.”

“What?!”  He shouted. Other diners looked over from their tables as he started to struggle to his feet from our “romantic table with the stools.” (DC Asshole characteristic number one… sensitive to other cultures so thinks eating Ethiopian food is a sign of sophistication. No one eats Ethiopian food if they want to have sex later that night. It was just too filling.)

“I read about it on Cynical Insider the other day.”

“That shit! They don’t know anything. I think that guy is a dick anyway. He’s so full of himself. Half his stories are shit and no one really reads that shit.”

“Guy? Why do you think it’s a guy?”

“Well only a man would have the balls to say that shit. Women are too smart to write like that” (DC Asshole characterization number two… the “pretend feminist/sensitive guy” who says what he thinks are the right things about women to win us over but is as big a sexist as any Republican. Give me a sexist Republican any day. At least they are honest.)

Well that was it for me… my inner feminist rose up.

“A guy, huh? Well I’ll have you know that I fucking know for sure it’s a woman.”

“You are full of shit. It is not a woman. You don’t know anything. You’re just some low level journalist at the fucking Washington Daily Star! You couldn’t even write a proper press release.” (DC Asshole characterization number 3 – assume everyone wants to work on the hill and those who don’t just couldn’t get a job there.)

“Oh yeah – what if I told you that Cynical Insider was me?”

“Bullshit.”

“For real.”

“Bullshit.”

“I’ll prove it.”

“How? “

“Read tomorrow and see if there is anyone you recognize in it. “

And I stormed out after rising gracelessly to my feet and throwing down some cash on the table. Thank god I had cash. Its impossible to storm out when you have to use your debit card to pay your half. And because I’m a DC woman, I always pay my half. (See DC Asshole characterization number 2… no “sensitive guy” wants to offend your feminist sensitivities by offering to pay for dinner.)

That night, I stopped by the liquor store and bought a shit bottle of Chilean red and sat miserably at my computer. “Dating in DC aka Hollywood-for-Ugly-People” I started. And then I was off. The bottle finished around 2am and I had my guide to dating in DC. How to tell apart the types: the congressional staffers who were in love with themselves, the power gays, the closeted gays, the want to-be punk rock NGOers, the euro-trash World Bank guys, the military married man, the surprisingly hung wonks at the think tanks, the impotent student body presidents, and the perverted bicycle messengers.

I starred Adam, my thwarted date as the star… typical grade A  DC asshole. In love with the sound of his own voice minor-level Midwestern wanna-be power-player who would wine and dine you with cheap food that you had to pay your half for, show his knowledge of foreign affairs with some boring anecdote about what someone from the foreign relations staff (who he would only refer to by their first name) said to him in the ‘halls of power’ and how the evening usually ended with lackluster dry humping and grinding on the dance floors of Habana Village and if you were lucky, he could keep it up long enough to go a couple of minutes in your room later that night before passing out and trying to sneak out in the middle of the night.  DC: the land where sex goes to die.

As I hit “post”, I thought… maybe I shouldn’t do this. Fuck it. And up it went. I passed out and the next morning my phone beeped. My friend Annamaria was texting. “Had a bit too much to drink last night?” she said with a winky smile. Brunch at Lauriol Plaza? I hated going there. For some reason, she liked it even though me and the rest of my bratty friends referred to it as the “Bridge and Tunnel Crowd”. But the salmon salad was delicious and the chips and salsa good. If you went early enough on a Sunday, no one else would be around.

She and I met outside and she taunted me lovingly about my post from the night before. I told her in long boring detail about the date and she sympathized. Single dynamic women were a dime a dozen in DC. The men were shit and we were never going to get married. Same old Sunday morning.

When I got home, I checked my email. There was an angry email from Adam, my Match.com date. “You bitch” it started and went downhill from there. “You’ll pay for this. I’ll make sure you never get a job in this town again.”  I should have added more about the petty tyrant Napoleonic complex in there. I thought. And the fact that every dickhead in this town thinks that he has power and is some sort of mover and shaker. I was unconcerned. I logged onto Wonkette and the comments were running hot and heavy. Women from throughout DC were adding their own miserable anecdotes about the lackluster sex they were getting and the Men’s Rights Activists were calling us all castrating bitches and threatening to go to Thailand to find “real women” who “treated them right”. But… wait… what was that? There was a comment from “DEM69” saying “Yes, I know who this bitch CYNICAL INSIDER is… I went on a date with her last night. What she’s not telling you is that she is 15 pounds overweight, 34 but looks 44, and an angry bitter feminist. When I wouldn’t fuck her, she got nasty.”

This must not stand! So I blasted back in the comments some of last night’s choice brags/quotes from Adam. “Rep so and so is one of the leading candidates to be Secretary of State. The President calls her regularly!” and the catcalls and the nastiness swarmed around him. Finally, he pulled out his only trump card. “Well why don’t you go out with CYNICAL INSIDER yourself? Her profile on Match.com is bookish babe.” And there it was, I was outed.

Shit.

What am I going to do now? Lay low, disable my Match account? Or maybe this could work for me? I wasn’t sure. Let’s brazen it out and see what happens tomorrow.

Monday morning – Reliable Source in the Washington Post has picked it up. There is my profile picture in the Style section with a witty little “he said, she said” date summary from the comments on Wonkette. But they lay heavily down on my side. Dating in DC sucks… lots of women have weighed in on my side with anecdotes of miserable blind dates. I walk into my office and hope my editor hasn’t seen it. But no, there it is on my desk with the dreaded post it “SEE ME” next to it. I walk into the editor’s office. He chews my ass off, tells me my gossipy ways are inappropriate and have no place in a serious newsroom, suspends me for two weeks to think over my sins. I walk home, log onto Wonkette… tons of posts still coming in as the worker bees of DC fight it out in the comments. I’ve struck a nerve. And in my in box, a note from the mother ship “Gawker.com” – let’s talk. Maybe we can hire you full time. I’ve got 2 weeks off work, let’s see what they have to say. Boom – I’m a gossip columnist.

So for three wonderful years, it was the glory days of Gawker.com. People were being swept up into the “new media” – snarky gossipy “news” was in and people were jumping from Gawker.com to amazing jobs with the Atlantic, Huffington Post, and the Washington Post. They were moving from gossip to real news and respectable “old media” jobs and some were even talking heads on TV!
I jumped ship and never looked back. I wrote ferocious, bitchy short little gossipy pieces about the “movers and the shakers” in DC. I was paid well, the meaner my piece, the more clicks I got. I moved into a bigger place and began thinking about moving to a magazine. Us Weekly came calling. I moved to NYC. I went to great parties with “literati” and I started writing about movie stars.

But then the economic downturn came and it was more about “the Real Housewives of NY”, “Teen Mom” and Snooki and their latest shenanigans. It was hard to be bitchy or snarky about these clueless fame whores and I started to feel sorry for them. The colleagues at the magazines and websites started to get younger and younger. My posts were getting less prominent and I found myself moved to the online subsidiary of Us Weekly, then laid off. I got a position with TMZ.com but it was for half the money I used to make. I started hustling part time with pieces in different gossip columns and puff pieces for other gossip weeklies including “best bikini bodies” and “worst tattoos”. 

Luckily, I had married Nick, a man with a real job as a lawyer and he paid the bills and I was allowed to continue my “career” as a gossip columnist. He encouraged me to put it aside and write a novel. “You know you have it in you! You are a great writer! Put this junk food writing away and plug into it!” he would encourage me. And I would feel ashamed and make promises and say that I was working on a draft. But I wasn’t. I was reading gossip columns and killing time in my “office”. We had moved back to Washington DC – land of the “intelligentsia” and networkers. Everyone there was running an association, a NGO, or working for a congressman. The others were lobbyists, diplomats, and scholars. But I was ashamed to tell people what I did for a living when we went to parties and when his lawyer friends found out, the raised eyebrows made me feel ashamed so I became more brazen and ridiculous and told ridiculous made up stories about movie stars. I was their “dancing monkey” and I felt less and less happy to go out and socialize. But I still wrote – unable to envision a job that wasn’t writing pithy little snarky bits anymore. Unable to shake my self-loathing and continuing to write catty bits about the latest celebutante’s std.  Who was I kidding? I was no novelist. There was no draft. There was me and my internet connection and a big cloud of shame sitting in that “office.”

One day, I was making coffee in the morning and firing up the computer. I had recently got a ‘position’ as a stringer putting together gossip bits in the morning and supposedly working on my novel in the afternoons but really, I usually played ‘Angry Birds’, read gawker (now mostly staffed by former commenter’s being paid peanuts to re-word Reddit pieces), and browsed facebook. My phone rang and I walked over to find it – hidden under some magazines. It was a blocked number. Hmmm… I pressed silent. No good comes from blocked numbers. I opened up Crazy Days and Nights … it was time to find out the answers to last weeks Blind Items. The phone rang again. Blocked Number.

So this time, I ignored my rule and I answered it. “Hello?” “Lindsay it’s me” came the answer. “Who?” “Me!” and I realized who it was. It was my former editor from Gawker – Sadie Smith. “Look, I’ve got a great offer for you. I’m starting my own website. I need a DC columnist. I immediately thought of you. It’d be like the good ole days! Would you like to join?” “Oh wow! How are you? It’s been a long time!” “Yes! But this website, its perfect for you… I want to bring us back to the glory days of Gawker… some expose, some irreverent news, some gossip, but not this crap that you are writing nowadays, what do you say?” What could I say? It would be awesome, I’d been so ashamed of my old life… so why not? Reader, I said Yes. And that decision changed my whole life.

About three months later, I was working on a story that seemed to go nowhere. I had a lead that there was a video out there of a popular young congressman smoking crack cocaine. I had called around, punched into some pretty awful people who were willing to make it available to me, sight unseen but for $10,000. I was ready to pull the plug on this “scandal”. I had no proof and basically this guy was alright -he seemed to be doing a good job bringing jobs home to his constituency – a hard scrabble bunch of shipbuilders in Delaware. He voted consistently against the crazy Republican pro-lifers and pro-war crowd. He was fiscally responsible, not introducing any weird bills and seemed well liked. He was young-ish, known as a bit of a party guy but that’s probably what his constituents liked about him… the famous “can you drink a beer with this guy?” factor.

It wasn’t going anywhere – I didn’t have $10,000. I didn’t think it was right for a newspaper/web magazine whatever we were, to spend $10,000 on a video for “news”. And if we did purchase it, it would be from drug dealers – people who sold crack cocaine. Washington DC was not the sort of place that one wanted to encourage crack cocaine dealers. So I dropped my inquiries.

Two days later, I was chatting with Sadie on the phone. “What happened with that Congressman Crackhead story you were working on?” she asked. “Oh, I dropped it. I couldn’t get my hands on the video. It probably doesn’t exist and if it does, its probably so blurry and smeary that you can’t even tell who it is. Besides, I like Congressman Crackhead. I don’t think this is worth ruining his life.” “What! That’s not your call!” she said, “how much do they want?” “ummm 10K” I answered, a bit shocked. “Look – this could crack us wide open, pardon the pun. We’ve not been getting the hits we need to generate online advertising revenue. We need to play with the big boys. We need a big story, even if it is one that goes nowhere to generate clicks. Start writing about it. Leave the 10K to me.” “I don’t think this is a good idea…” I started. “Do it, “she said. “I don’t pay you to think. We need to make sure our site takes off. We need to play with the big boys. We need our “Faith Hill” moment. ”

She was talking about the famous moment when Jezebel.com, my former favorite website, got someone to forward them the untouched cover photos of Faith Hill, a country singer so they could compare them with the photo-shopping that took place when they were published. Poor Faith Hill was embarrassed but Jezebel became famous for “uncovering” the vast amounts of photo-shopping and cover-up and moving around of limbs, shaving of waists, and blasting of wrinkles that goes into making a superstar look like an un-aging, perfect demigod. In the name of good “feminism”, Jezebel exposed the ruthless photo-shopping of magazine covers and got on the national radar and people talked for about 5 minutes of outlawing Photoshop. Then it was back to the same old same old. No truth in advertising.

I thought about it. Was it so wrong? If this guy was smoking crack, that was illegal and destructive and he needed to be exposed. But what if it wasn’t him? What if the video didn’t exist? Then what? Well, that’s today’s news cycle. I thought. He has press officers, they’ll cover this for him. It’ll be on the news for a couple of days, people know about him –its good for his news coverage, he can become a “comeback” kid and he’ll get eve more exposure. So I wrote up my first story on it… I spoke about the possible existence of this video and I hinted around about who Congressman Crackhead might be.

About 20 minutes after it hit the webpage, there were a flurry of hits. Click Click Click… click bait it was indeed. And I got lots of comments. Readers were outraged. Calling for full exposure of this lying hypocrite. There is nothing America likes more than a good hypocritical church-going mama’s boy being brought down by drugs. Unless its sex. That makes it better. We scold them, we put them in the stocks and throw rotten tomatoes at them. They sew the scarlet letter on their chest and make the rounds of the talk shows apologizing with their wife grinning next to them. Then we forgive them like the good hypocritical Christians that we are and they run for a different office and then its all forgiven. Look at Anthony Weiner! Look at Eliot Spitzer! There are more gay republicans than one can count on both hands and feet who have survived their forced “outing”.

My inbox started filling up with emails. And in there was an interesting name I hadn’t seen in a long time. It was my date from way back in the beginning. The man who pushed me into this career fulltime - Adam. And it appeared he was now Congressman Crackhead’s Legislative director.

“CEASE AND DESIST” was the opening line of his email. Infuriating. He was still a loathsome smug asshole. “Look, you aren’t as good a writer as you think you are, you two bit gossip. You haven’t changed a bit. I know you are hinting around about the congressman but this is libel. You need to stop this. WE WILL SUE.” Unbelievable. I puffed up in righteous indignation thinking about the first amendment and the right of the public to know the truth about their congressman.  He is a PUBLIC SERVANT! I thought – how dare he take that sacred trust and waste it!

I called Sadie. She was thrilled… “Lindsay, this is awesome! Look – I’ve got a great idea. I’m going to launch a “kick starter” to see if we can get readers to raise the 10K that we need. If we don’t’ get it, no one is out of money but if we do – what a score! We’ll change the way journalisms is practiced and be legendary!” Her enthusiasm was infectious. I was in.

I upped the ante with the next post. I had contacted the drug dealers again and told them that we were definitely interested. To increase page hits, I took it a bit further. Congressman Crackhead acquired some initials. I described him as a young ‘family man’ from a working class district. I all but named him. Other websites picked up the hunt. Photos of the young congressman coming out of the Home Depot with his young children on a Saturday morning accompanied a “Is it him?” style post. His wife was photographed coming out of an SUV in sweatpants and looking a bit overweight. I felt bad for her. She had just given birth to twins 8 months before and unlike the Hollywood bimbos that we covered, had no personal trainer and nanny and 8 hour a day job that consisted soley of working out to get back that “pre-baby body”. She was an ordinary woman who didn’t expect paparazzi. She looked a bit like me.  But you know what – that’s politics. “Why the congressman has to smoke crack” was the quip underneath a photo of her generous derriere not quite covered by her sweatpants and exposing her “plumber’s crack” as she bent over to pick up the baby’s car seat. America loved it. We linked to it, the page clicks kept coming.

The kick starter was making money. We were up to $8k. I kept writing little snippets of gossip about congressman Crackhead and his run-ins with the law when he was 15. The phone calls from Adam were starting to get frantic. Finally, I took one. “Look you bitch,“ he snarled, “ this isn’t funny. The congressman does not smoke crack. That video will not be of him. And you are not playing with amateurs here.” “Bring it on, Adam,” I said coolly, “There’s this thing you seem to have forgotten about called the First Amendment and I’m covered. I have never mentioned him.” And the clicks just kept coming. I had daily conversations with the drug dealers as they tried to negotiate a higher price. They were in conversation with our rivals who said they would offer them $12K. Would we match it? “A deal is a deal!” I pleaded –imagine that trying to appeal to some sense of honor that I imagined that crack dealers who record their clients getting high might have. “Plus –we’re almost there with the money. If we give it to you first, you have to give us the video”.  Meanwhile, I typed up an “expose” of a friend of Congressman Crackhead from high school who talked about the time they got high on pot behind the movie theatre one time. Damning evidence.

We hit our $10K. Sadie was talking to the publisher to figure out how to turn this into a payment to some drug dealers without having to disclose on our taxes who the drug dealers were. It was pretty murky and unclear. My husband was out of town for the night – business trip to NYC. I was pulling a late night session putting the finishing touches on the article I was going to run, keeping in mind, I had not ever seen the video but Sadie had and she was sure it was him. I got another blocked call. “Shit, it must be Sadie calling from skype.” I thought so I answered.

“Is this Sadie Smith?” came a voice of a man. “Yes – who is this? Who am I speaking to?” “Its Congressman Joe DeCosta.” I was silent. What was I supposed to say? Finally, I answered, “Yes? What can I do for you, congressman?” “Look. I just wanted to talk to you and ask you why you are running with this? What have I ever done to you?” he sounded sad. Sad and a little drunk. “It’s nothing personal Congressman… I’m a reporter, I report the news.” I said a bit nervously. “Its not news… how could it be news? It’s not me. I swear to god it’s not me.” He said. “Well congressman, we’ll have to play the video and let our readers be the judge of that.” “Look, my family is freaking out. My wife thinks it is me. I used to have a coke problem when I first met her. She made me go to NA and promise to keep clean before she married me. I did it. I’ve never touched anything since then. I’ve been clean.” “Well why have you never mentioned this before, Congressman? Surely a savvy office staffer should have told you to make a statement!” I said thinking of Adam and his arrogant smug face. “Is this on the record?”

“Oh they have begged me to do this but I’m not going to. This is off the record, I’m going to take the higher ground. I’m not going to comment on your work. This is America. I still believe that everyone is innocent until proven guilty and I’m sure that my constituents do too.” “Well then you should be fine, congressman. Think of all the good publicity you are getting. This might even take you to governor or senator from Delaware.” “No – I’m appealing to you and your sense of decency! Its not my political career I care about. It’s my wife, I think she’s going to leave me. She doesn’t even care what the video shows. She believes that I broke my promise to her. My vow. She’s packing up the children’s clothes now…”his voice shook, “I…I can’t live without her. I can’t do this.” “Look, congressman, why don’t you have Adam Smith talk her out of it. You’ll need her by your side tomorrow on the morning talk shows. She’ll know the drill. All political wives do.” I said snarkily as I looked at my blinking “inbox” indicator. “If you’ll excuse me, I’m on deadline. I think the video is here.” And I hung up.

Finally I was uncovering a big scoop. It was going to be my “Watergate”. I would be able to hold my head up at the next dinner party full of intellectual snobs. It would put me back on the map as a legit journalist. I opened the in-box. The first message was from Sadie - “Lindsay- been trying to call you. Can’t figure out a way to legally buy video. Plus when you look at it, it’s just not clear whether its him or not. So spin your article that we’ve decided the ethical thing is not to run the video. Let Gawker have it. There’s nothing really incriminating on it.” Shit. Oh well – the congressman will have what he wants – publicity and his name cleared. My name will still be in the byline. Maybe he’ll be relieved tomorrow. I’ll call him and see if I can get him to give me his NA story on the record. So I wrote up the story and hit send. Nick was out of town at a conference. It was 1am. I decided to take a sleeping pill so I could pass out and I put the phone on silent.


Around 10am I awoke. I felt groggy. The pill had been too strong and I wasn’t used to them. I went to make some coffee and turned on the TV. The stats from last night’s football game were up, Redskins lose again. And then “Coming up next, the tragic death of a congressman. Was new media to blame? Where do we draw the line at gossip?” What? Fuck! I sat down and watched the 3 minutes of commercials silently gripping my coffee cup as if it were a life preserver. The distinguished looking greyhaired newsman came on with his deep sonorous drone -“Congressman Joe DeCosta is fighting for his life in Sibley hospital this morning.” He started. “The congressman was tragically driven to the edge by gossip mongers spreading stories that he was smoking crack cocaine, Congressman De Costa appears to have taken a weapon and shot and killed his wife and two 8 month old twins last night before turning the weapon on himself.  Police are investigating PRIVATE EYE website, a notorious new gossip site that promised an illegal video of a man who appeared to look like Congressman DeCosta smoking crack cocaine. The video was posted by rival Gawker.com last night and is too blurry to definitively tell if its Congressman DeCosta or not. Police will be looking into this further.” I looked over to my iPhone. It was vibrating with a blocked call. I dismissed the call. 35 missed calls. Some from the DC police.  And one from my husband. And one from my lawyer. And one – from about 5 minutes after I put the phone on silent from Congressman DeCosta. Life was never going to be the same again.

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 Tripit.com). 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!
Love, 

Sarah