Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Frog in a pot of water

While I was in our project in the highlands of PNG, I was "evacuated" with staff by a 10 seat prop plane that was chartered to fly in, pick us up, and deliver us back to the capitol. It was actually quite emotional - after a meeting where the management informed the national staff why we were leaving and everyone hugged goodbye, we rolled out of the compound in a convoy of white landrovers to the airstrip followed about ten minutes later by crying staff - I felt like I was in an episode of M*A*S*H. My colleagues were worried about leaving patients and colleagues behind and wondered if they would ever return. Despite the fact that I had only been there three days, I was emotional too and even felt some tears in my eyes when we took off down the old dirt runway.

A little background:
In the area where we work in the highlands, its extremely violent and neglected. The people there still wear traditional clothing often and they conduct elaborate tribal wars. Because of the violence, there's been almost no one working there for years. We run a project focused on sexual violence, domestic violence, and surgery for violent injuries. For the past few weeks, there's been a bunch of drunk men with seriously big machetes (one was like 3 feet long!) breaking into the hospital and shouting death threats at the staff. Since we are a neutral agency, we don't use armed guards so all we can do when they come in is lock ourselves in the compound.

Since the authorities woudn't do anything about security, management decided to "send a signal"by evacuating the staff. The community was so pissed off at the authorities for problems in the past that they sent 20 people to kill the CEO with machetes and spears three months ago. So security is a big issue. But the people in PNG are very emotional - it was hard to communicate what the "signal"was that we were sending...
the community was also incensed that we were leaving so they staged a demonstration outside the hospital threatening to burn the place down. Which we were afraid they might do. So as we were packing up on Tuesday night for our 11am evacuation flight, we heard gunshots from right outside of our "doublewide" trailor (or prefab house as its called in PNG) where we were staying. The radio handsets that we are all required to carry with us everywhere went off and we were told that we had to hunker down.

It's been a while since I heard gunshots... in DC, it wasn't that unusual but in Amsterdam, if I hear that sound, I assume its a car backfiring. I've grown accustomed to peace - even though I work in war zones. On the Ethiopia-Somalia border, I saw men running around with automatic weapons but I don't recall hearing shots.

I was staying with a psychologist and a doctor in the prefab house and we had all been chatting as we packed so we all went into the hallway and sat on the floor while our unarmed guards went out to investigate. Then there was another gunshot from closer to our house. We realized that we had the door to our house still wide open but were too afraid to run past all the windows to close it. So we decided to crawl into the shower and sat there for thirty minutes until we got the all clear. Since the UK doctor was listening to Kelly Clarkson whle she was packing, we had to continue to listen to it while we sat there wondering what was going on. So I got to contemplate the fact that I might be killed by a crazy drunk man while sitting in a shower of a doublewide lstening to Kelly Clarkson. Not exactly how I thought I would check out.

In the end, it it was all fairly uneventful. Supposedly the police were "checking their weapons" or one of the drunk dudes that has been harrassing the hospital was in an altercation with another guy and someone pulled a gun. Everyone seemed to think it was fairly uneventful and we had some laughs about sitting in the shower later on. But now that I think about it, I feel more like the frog in the pot of water that doesn't know how hot its gotten until its boiled. The violence in Papua New Guinea is so pervasive that it's hard to see it. The people are so sweet and friendly and nice but there is a potent brew of an unfamiliar culture based on payback and revenge and home brew that gets angry men drunk faster.

Sometimes I think about the risks that I take in my line of work. In general, I have a higher than normal tolerance for risk, I suppose. But sometimes I think that I have become immune to thinking about danger which is a bit scary. I wasn't really scared when we were crouched on the floor, I stayed calm and we thought of options. I remember being scared in Lebanon when the bombing started and I realized I had no idea what to do if the building I was in was bombed. Preparation has always helped me feel calm - if I know what I'm supposed to do, I can just go on auto pilot. But in PNG, I felt scared in the nightclub in Lae but not in the hospital compound in Tari.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Friday night in Papua New Guinea

“I shot the sheriff but I swear it was in self defense“

Went out to the Yacht club in Lae which is filled with fat old white Australian men sitting drinking numerous draft beers and getting drunk. We go because the drinks are cheap and there is a breeze from the sea. Three women, a woman from India, a woman from Germany, and I sit gossiping about work, gossiping about men, talking about our lives – an unusual sight in Papua New Guinea – there is no man there to protect us, to hover over us, to tell us what to do. So the Papuan women are intrigued and always come to talk to us. One comes over – she’s lovely, dressed well, very drunk. She starts off telling us about how she is being forced to do things she doesn’t want to do  - things that she wishes she wasn’t doing. We’re concerned and waiting to hear what is going on. But she instead talks about being unable to get pregnant, about having irregular periods, about being unable to conceive and how sad she feels because she has the money because she’s married to a white man, to go to a local clinic and get a d&c.  I still wonder what she’s trying to tell us. We encourage her to visit us at the sexual violence clinic. She says she works near by and has heard about us. We never mention the word Sexual Violence.

She leaves and we all look at each other – we were thinking the same thing. We start talking about leaving pamphlets in the bathroom so the women who work here and the women married to expat men can read them in private and know where to go for help.

Anyway, its Friday night. The other women have been working for five days straight treating about 25 women who have been brutally beaten by their husbands, raped by strangers, and have brought in their children who have been sexually molested. I’m tired because my brain has been stretched to its limit by an American doctor who wants everyting NOW and challenges me. I am happily tired. Rather have this than ridiculous office politics. We’re drinking gin and tonics and looking at the mountains  that meet the Pacific ocean and the big moon. The mental health counselor tells us about a karaoke night nearby at a place called the Melanesian Inn. Supposedly the nurse and the logistician got pissed and sang “Bohemian Rhapsody” there, completely unaware that a video was playing behind them of women in bikinis holding bananas and riding elephants seductively.

We’ve got to see it. We’ve got to go there! I have to see a karaoke place where women hold bananas suggestively. I always forget what they are really like. So we drive over in our big white humanitarian Jeep, I hope out of the back in my pink sundress, clambering down the back step with my gold strappy sandals.  We walk in – 15 kina charge! Outrageous (that’s almost 3 dollars! And beers are only 1 dollar 50). But they wave us in – three single women! We walk in to an intense punch of the scent of cigarette smoke, body odor, and what smells like barely disguised sexual frustration and anger. I’m suddenly aware of the vulnerable position we are in. I’m not used to it. In my countries, in general, I can wear skimpy sundresses to bars and dance and talk to men, and no one is going to drag me off into the bushes and rape me. I’m a little nervous, I hve to admit. I feel vulnerable with four gin and tonics in me and nothing between me and my modesty but a cotton sundress. I didn’t dress provocatively – it was so hot and humid so I wore the dress because it’s lighter than cargo pants and a tshirt.

We are the only non  Papuans in the place. The music is nice but the man are DRUNK and the women start to cluster towards us. They are all prostitutes. It’s been my experience that prostitutes tend to be the nicest women in the world (with the exception of those on 13th Street NW in DC in 1996 but that’s another story). These Papuan women who are almost certainly on the game come and sit with us – eager to talk to women and chat with us and find out what is going on. “Me no savvy English, me talk talk pidgin” says one. One, who is smoking a small cigar keeps kissing my hand and smiling at me. They are funny and nice. We order a round of drinks.

Suddenly a band strikes up – keyboard, bass guitar, guitar, drummer, and two singers. They are singing John Fogerty’s Centerfield. “Put me in coach, I’m ready to play!”- we get up and dance. The music is surpsingly good. A very short mideget like man comes up to dance with us – he dances in ecstasy with his hands in the air, maintaining a safe distance. One of the prostitutes begins to grind against me. To Centerfield! I dance away. The woman who has lived here six months is laughing hysterically looking at our faces as we find ourselves danced against the wall by the female prostitutes. The band begins to play “I saw her Standing there” by the Beatles. We keep dancing. Some men come up and dance too close – a security guard eases on up and puts their arms on the men and whispers in their ear – the men back off. I wish they had that service in the US. Dutch men are so cold, they never dance too close.

We  feel protected – we dance and sing as the band moves into Bob Marley – I shot the Sheriff – an ironic song given the violence in Papua New Guinea. But an awesome version! The singer has a great voice. And then into … of course… no party is complete without it – “No Woman No Cry”. But still the female prostitute is kissing my friends arms and grinding against me. We decide to take a break to have another beer. And then! The Drifters! The music of my youth in South Carolina – at Camp Saint Christopher, at the Swan Lake Dance competitions, at Myrtle Beach – at school dances. I have to dance to this. The other girls don’t want to dance so I find myself on a dance floor with two prostitutes and four men, dancing and trying to shag to “Under the Boardwalk” . I twist and turn and try to spin the prostitute but she seems unable to follow my guidance and keeps trying to grind. So I sing – UNDER THE BOARDWALK – DOWN BY THE SEA- UNDER THE BOARDWALK- ….

A man starts screaming – two men carry him out on their shoulders as he twists and thrashes about. The men start circling closer and closer. The guards are eyeing us nervously. A giant huge man with hands twice the size of me comes up to talk tome. He’s a local Rugby player. He won’t admit it at first and when I ask him what he does, he says, he’ll tell me later insinuating all kinds of things. He has great dimples. It’s midnight.  Another drunk falls over a stool and lands on the floor. The prostitutes are gathering again –their betel nut stained teeth shining against their dark skin in the black light. The smell of unwashed and sweaty skin is overwhelming and the fans aren’t helping ventilate – just pushing the smell closer and closer to me. I’m getting nervous again – so we leave.

As we walk up to our driver with his humanitarian logo embossed vest and our giant white SUV, he tells us there is still a fight going on – the man who was thrown out of the bar! We can’t resist. We have to go look. There are five security guards still watching. We climb in to the car and head home at midnight – one more hour before curfew but it feels prudent to go home now. Just another Friday night in Lae, Papua New Guinea.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

More shopping in Singapore

Turtles for sale in a bucket in the seafood section - not for pets!

The "Smoking Kills" folks in Singapore are strict - photos of people in advanced stages of cancer and miscarried fetuses!

Frogs for sale in the seafood section too. Those legs look pretty small

Fresh crabs!!!! So nice!

And of course, Jackie Chan herbal shampoo.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Shopping in Singapore

I've always said, you can tell a lot about a country by the flavors of potato chips it sells. Pringles in particular is very adapt to adjusting to the local market.

In Holland you get a lot of Indonesian spices (reflecting their former colony). In France, you get Roast Chicken with Thyme. In England, Vinegar and Salt, Cheddar Cheese, or Worcestershire sauce. In the US, Nacho cheese, buffalo wings and blue cheese, or barbecue.

This is what I saw in Singapore


Sunday, November 15, 2009

Sunday evenings

On a trip to Devon with my friend Naomi, I recently met her brother-in-law, a singer songwriter named Chris Bond (pictured above surfing in Devon). He has a beautiful song called "Our Roots" that I really love. I have been having a bit of a rough time last week - too much stress and anxiety at work, dark winter afternoons, not enough exercise and fresh air, too much alcohol - so one day, when I was home recovering from a cold I couldn't shake, I listened to this song over and over again which soothed me. He has a refrain that says "its no good for our soul" (although it might say its no good for us all!) but I like the first interpretation better.

My good friend Willy got me out of the house this afternoon and took me rowing on the Amstel. The sky was a pewter gray and the leaves that still clung to the trees were a dark gold. It's a beautiful palette and peaceful to be so close to the water. We went by houseboats, called in on a friend of hers painting in his studio, practiced my rowing techniques, and then cycled back home into the city. As we cycled by, we had the uniquely Dutch experience of 20 men in velvet pantaloons and blackface rollerblading past us. Yes, its Sinterklaas time!

So after a healthy afternoon, on a Sunday evening (one of my favorite times of the week), I'm trying to do a few things this evening that are good for the soul.
  • Listening to Billie Holiday, Louis Jordan, Chet Baker, Blossom Dearie, Ella Fitzgerald, Van Morrison, Buena Vista Social Club and other music that reminds me of home
  • Cooking with organic vegetables - tonight wild mushrooms called "pied de mouton" and freshly made linguini
  • Drinking tea while wearing a cardigan and slippers.
  • Snuggling with Simon, the fuzzy Siamese, who purrs contentedly on my lap
  • Making little snacks of freshly baked Rosemary foccacia and pieces of Elstar apples.
  • Reading a good book while curled up on the couch under a blanket.
Tomorrow, I'll face the office again. But now, I'm recharging my batteries, replenishing my soul.


"Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak whispers the o'er-fraught heart and bids it break." ~William Shakespeare

When my mother died in 1997, I was 29 years old and in graduate school. I was dating a man named Michael and living in Washington DC in a group house with three other women. I had a persian cat named Dante and I worked part time at Witness for Peace, a grassroots Latin American human rights organization.

Why my father died in 2009, I was 41 years old and had been working full time for twelve years. I am not seriously involved with anyone romantically and I live in Amsterdam, the Netherlands alone in an apartment in the Oost. I have a siamese cat named Simon and I work for Medecins Sans Frontieres, a medical humanitarian organization.

So a few things have changed - but not that much. Grief has caught me unprepared. I thought I could handle it- after all, he had been struggling healthwise and whenever he became ill, he would remind me that he had had a very good life and was tired and didn't want to live forever. I spent three weeks with him at Christmas, cooking him anything he liked to eat, and chatting with him, and taking him to doctor's appointments. We cooked spaghetti together and drank champagne on New Years Day. We had a wonderful time. I left in January, expecting to see him in April.

It's been eight and a half months since he died suddenly. I miss him dreadfully and as the Christmas season sneaks up and the year anniversary of the last time I saw him, the sadness becomes overwhelming sometimes. I feel unmoored by grief. Things I took for granted are gone. I don't have a 'home' anymore except for this rented apartment. Alyson and I are attempting to sell our childhood home and I haven't been back to South Carolina since March after the funeral. My landlady and I had a minor dispute about the use of the guestroom a few weeks ago and I felt a huge sense of violation of my privacy. I just wanted to go home and I don't have one that is mine anymore. I was enraged and overwhelmed by my anger.

When I travel to new countries now, I become overwhelmed by the fact that I can't call my father before I leave and when I get home to tell him about it. He always wanted to know what the beer was like. There's noone now, really, to worry if I arrive safely or if I return okay. My sister and friends care, I suppose, but its an empty feeling to know that the parents who always fretted over my safety and wouldn't let me drive to a Duran Duran show are no longer there to worry about me anymore. I cry now at departures because there is noone to wish me off and I cry at arrivals because there is noone there to welcome me home. Airports which before had been so incredibly exciting and dull at the same time are now emotional.

Sometimes the emotions are so raw that they feel unmanageable. I do not know if I can describe this feeling that sits on my chest like a heavy millstone. So for comfort, I turn to the words of others to assure myself I'm not crazy and that this is a human experience.

" The deep pain that is felt at the death of every friendly soul arises from the feeling that there is in every individual something which is inexpressible, peculiar to him alone, and is, therefore, absolutely and irretrievably lost."  ~Arthur Schopenhauer

"I see people, as they approach me, trying to make up their minds whether they'll 'say something about it' or not. I hate if they do, and if they don't."
— C.S. Lewis (A Grief Observed)
"Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe their husband is about to return and need his shoes."

— Joan Didion (The Year of Magical Thinking)

"No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing. At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in."

— C.S. Lewis

"As long as I kept moving, my grief streamed out behind me like a swimmer's long hair in water. I knew the weight was there but it didn't touch me. Only when I stopped did the slick, dark stuff of it come floating around my face, catching my arms and throat till I began to drown. So I just didn't stop."

— Barbara Kingsolver (The Poisonwood Bible)

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Haunted By Halloween

Haunted by Halloween


TORONTO -- Halloween deserves a house cleaning. Our strongly superstitious age needs Halloween, but cannot do anything with it in its present degenerate form.
Halloween has been thrust too much into the hands of children. Dressing children as ghosts and witches, and sending them out on the night of Oct. 31 to demand tribute from the neighbors, or perhaps to proffer collection boxes for a variety of more or less worthy charities, is contrary to the deeper meaning of Halloween. The old festival is not childish, nor associated with good works and community spirit.
The deeper meaning? What lingers today is a foggy recollection of the great Celtic festival of the Death of the Year. The Celts divided their year into the growing months and the resting months. The former began on the first of May with the Feast of Beltane, where the returning sun was welcomed by huge bonfires on the hills. The latter started after the harvest had been gathered. The waning of the sun was marked by the Feast of Samhain, a two-day affair, celebrated after sundown on Halloween and on All Saints' Day, Nov. 1.
It was the Christian Church, of course, that instituted the feast of All Saints. The church was crafty about adapting pagan celebrations to its own purposes, and when it set about its methodical substitution of Christianity for the old Celtic religion, it carefully noted that at Samhain the Celts remembered their ancestors and their heroes, and did them honor in a number of ceremonies, including, so the missionaries said (but the evidence of missionaries must always be carefully weighed), human sacrifice. How logical, then, that the old feast should serve the new faith and be-come a time when the saints were recalled on Nov. 1 and all the other faithful dead on the day that followed, called All Souls'?
If we were to take a new look at Halloween, what might we do? Surely revive the custom of giving some respectful heed to our forbears.
We of North America are not so likely to do this as are the peoples of the rest of the globe. Is it because of our driving ambition to do better than our parents? Like it or not, to reach middle age with less money or less prestige than our father had is somewhat to lose face. Stupid of course, when put like that, but who is prepared to argue that we are not stupid in several important ways?
Nevertheless, our forbears are deserving of tribute for one indisputable reason, if for no other: without them we should not be here. Let us recognize that we are not the ultimate triumph but rather we are beads on a string. Let us behave with decency to the beads that were strung before us, and hope modestly that the beads that come after us will not hold us of no account merely because we are dead.
Today and tomorrow are the proper days for such reflection. It need not detain us for more than a few minutes, but it should be sincere. A few gentle thoughts or even -- I hardly know how to put it without moving you to indignation or laughter -- a brief prayer would not come amiss, and might turn your thoughts in a fruitful direction.
There have always been people who give no regard to their forbears, and it was they who were thought in the days of the old Celtic religion to suffer on Halloween. That was the night when the spirits of the neglected or affronted dead took vengeance on their unworthy descendants. They were on the rampage as bats and owls, ghosts and bogles, and they were not always careful where their vengeance fell. To be out on Halloween was to run great risk of physical or psychological harm, for it was then that the underworld of chaos and death settled old scores.
Wise folk, long after Christianity ousted the Old Religion, kept indoors on the night of Samhain and followed tradition by trying to foresee the future. There are still people who remember bobbing for apples at Halloween parties. It is a method of divination now turned into a game. My father recalled that when he was a boy in rural Wales, girls used to drop molten lead into cold water on Halloween because the lead would surely take the form of the first letter of their true love's name and if it did so he would marry them.
Fortunes were told by "scrying," which was to see images in a basin of water (later a crystal). Soul cakes -- rather than shortbread -- were baked and given to the children who went "souling" from door to door -- the beginning of the modern trick-or-treat. By the 19th century, we can presume, it was safe to go outdoors.

Did I not speak earlier of this as a strongly superstitious age? Who can deny it, when fortune tellers of all sorts prosper as they have not done in 50 years, as sophisticated young business people resort to them, within a few yards of the great Market of Phantoms, Wall Street itself? Has there ever been such a brisk trade in crystals and tarot cards? Have wizards ever advertised so unequivocally in the very best publications?
There are laws almost everywhere against witchcraft but how often are they invoked? There are covens of liberated women who let it be known that they are witches but are anxious to have it understood that they are White Witches, who do no harm and simply get together to invoke the Great Mother, the supreme Nature Goddess, and eat a few vegetarian dishes. Their attitude shows the cast of mind that has gelded and trivialized Halloween.
The Great Mother, who is said to have anticipated the reign of the Great Father by several millennia, was, like Nature, not unremittingly benevolent. She had -- or should I say has -- an eerie, nasty side, and the rout of evil spirits on Halloween was only one of her ways of letting it be known. She had three natures -- Virgin, Consort and Hag; the Hag was rough and, in the form of children got up as witches, still makes a farcical appearance on Halloween.
What might we profitably do on Halloween? Look backward, and consider those who went before us. The road ahead is inevitably dark, but to see where we have been may offer unexpected hints about who we are, and where we should be heading. Triviality about the past leads certainly toward a trivial future.
Robertson Davies is author of, most recently, "The Lyre of Orpheus."

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Writer's Block

I've been suffering from writer's block. I suppose its not unusual, after all, I'm still struggling to accept my father's death and work and its accompanying dramas seem to suck up all the time and energy I have. However, here's a short run-down of all the things I'd like to write about or post but haven't had the energy to do yet.

My trip to Tuscany and the fabulous food
My trip to Normandy with my sister to visit the D Day sites - very thought provoking, particularly since I then went on a course on International Humanitarian Law in Brussels immediately after.
The use of anthropologists in Human Terrain Teams in Afghanistan
The encroaching winter time - it's 7am and the sun isn't up yet. I'm not sure if I'm prepared for this!
The rest of the photos from my trip to the midwest. Espescially the Corn Palace in South Dakota and my speeding ticket in Nebraska.
My love for pre-WWII espionage novels

Anyway, I'll try to carve out some time and inspiration.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Still bewildered in Holland

Even though I've been here two years and four months, I still find things that bewilder me from time to time. Tonight I went shopping for sheets and new pillows because my sister is coming to visit and she's a pillow snob. I went to the Bijenkorf because its a swanky department store and I was feeling flush with cash and wanting to splurge on some high thread count sheets.

When I go there, I realized they don't have single, double, queen, california king and king... they have 90 cm, 200 cm, 220 cm lengths and different widths! I have no idea what length and width my double bed is. I tried to describe it by saying things like "It's for two people and its longer than normal." Hmmm. Then I bought some pillows. They are square - not rectangular. The bed set that I bought has a duvet cover and two pillow cases but no fitted sheets.

It's really humbling to be an idiot asking silly questions as an adult. But on a brighter side - I'm so Dutch acclimatized, I rode home with two duvet sets, two giant pillows, a box of wine glasses, my purse and extra raincoat all packed on my bicycle without a single accident. I didn't risk listening to my iPod during the time but I did think about it.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Gay Pride Parade

Saturday, August 1 will be the Gay Pride Canal Parade in Amsterdam. My friend Alec will be joining me from the US and we'll go and watch 10 Dutch American couples be married by the Mayor of Amsterdam. There's tons of events going on. The Yoga for men logo caught my eye so I thought I would share it with you all. Enjoy!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Ted Gose

I was devastated to hear that a very dear friend, no family member, died this weekend. Some of you may remember Ted Gose, the man who donated his house to host my father's funeral luncheon. He died this weekend. My heart goes out to his 16 year old son, Art, who I've known his entire life and his wife, Barb, and his daughters and step-son.

Ted (or Teddy Bear as my father and mother liked to call him) was a wonderful man. Warm, funny, smart, and endearing. He had the biggest heart in the world. My parents lived across the street from him for almost 20 years and thought of him as the son they never had. The photo above is from a dinner we had at Angel's - a mexican restaurant in Sumter that my father loved. Ted arranged for them to donate food for my father's funeral. Ted and Barb always dropped by and took my dad out or checked in on him to see how he was doing. He was there to give me advice when I needed it and to help out whenever we asked.

I loved Ted very dearly. I will miss him. My heart breaks. Its just too much. The world will be a much sadder and lonelier place without him.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Road Trip 2009: Of South Dakota and Corn Palaces

Neither Alyson nor I had ever been to South Dakota or Nebraska. We had gone to Iowa as young girls with my father, I had been to Minnesota for a wedding after college. Since we were flying into Omaha, we thought we couldn't miss the opportunity to see South Dakota too. Unfortunately, we were trying to conserve Alyson's vacation time so we missed the cousins big trip to the Badlands and didn't have time to stop at Laura Ingalls Wilder's homestead spot that was about 2 hours off the highway but I have a feeling that we'll try to return to South Dakota. Home of Tom Brokaw, Cheryl Ladd, and Tom Daschle!

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Sunday, July 19, 2009

Road Trip 2009: Surprisingly beautiful Nebraska

My only real interaction with Nebraska in the past has been awe at the power of the 80s Cornhusker football team, reading "My Antonia" and Little House on the prairie books, and my friend Linda who was from there. I had a vague image in my mind of long flat boring countryside. Boy was I wrong, I found Nebraska beautiful. I would even go back although I'm still smarting from my speeding ticket from Norfolk, Nebraska. At least the police officer was polite! And talk about good service, the folks at the rental car agency were about the nicest people I've ever met in my life!

Enjoy some photos from my road trip with Alyson.

The Pie Auction Video

4th of July in George Iowa, part 2: The Pie Auction

The Pie Auction

What could be more small town and quaint than a pie auction? I had visions of the Andy Griffith Show in my head. Some dear old Aunt Bee laboring over her peach pie but being beat out by the hot new spinster teacher in town so the men banding together to purchase Auntie Bee's pie for an inflated price. I had big plans to purchase a rhubarb pie in honor of my Dad who loved rhubarb pie above everything. It was going to be one of the highlights of the 4th of July weekend in the Midwest.

The George, Iowa pie auction was held behind the elementary school by the baseball field right after a musical performance and before the fireworks. There was a small amusement park set up in the parking lot with a ring toss and bingo. You could buy ice cream and popcorn at the concessions stand. I arrived with my sister and my cousin Catherine prepared to bid for a pie.

Imagine my shock and horror to learn that the opening bid for these 109 home made pies was $100! The first pie went for almost $300!!!! This was no small town Southern sleepy pie auction. These Iowa farmers were rich! They auctioned 109 pies with the cheapest one going for $125. And they auctioned them like a true hog auction complete with fast talking auctioneer, spotters, and a loudspeaker placed somewhere over my head. It went on for at least an hour and a half. I couldn't even get in on the action for what sounded like a gross pie - sour cream and raisin. That one still was out of my range at $125.

I realized I had been laboring under a misconception of what small towns were like. Being rural and being a farmer does not necessarily mean being poor, I have learned. Years of living in the south and being subjected to "we're going to lose the family farm" movies form Hollywood lead me to believe that in the midst of the economic crisis that was to be rivaling the Great Depression that a small town pie auction to support the school would be an affordable deal. I know that George, Iowa suffered greatly during the last Great Depression. Signs in the museum spoke about "one of the many single men who drifted into town searching for work" and my father spoke about times being lean. But with the age of government subsidies for farms and a heavy reliance on genetically modified seeds, modern technology, and intense fertilizer - the Iowa farm looks mighty prosperous compared to the meager efforts I've seen in South America, Africa, and Asia.

So while in many ways, the 4th of July celebrations in Iowa were as stereotypical and patriotic and fun as I had expected, I learned an important lesson thanks to the pie auction. I think I may now be opposed to farming subsidies for US farmers.

I suppose I was struck deaf by the garbled loudspeaker next to my ears at the pie auction. My cousin Linda has informed me that the video shows the pie being auctioned at $50. It was hard to keep track as 109 pies were auctioned and I was just anxiously awaiting the fireworks. But the first pie and several others did go for $300. Most of the purchasers were local businesses.

For those who feel that I maligned the good people of George, Iowa by saying how surprised I was that the town was prosperous, I apologize. I very much enjoyed my visit to George and found very pleasant people there. I was surprised at the wealth in a town of about 1000 people but I invite you to compare and contrast it to the farm towns that I've visited in South Carolina where grinding poverty is a visible way of life. The recession has hit my hometowns of Columbia and Sumter, SC hard and the effect is visible with for sale signs and foreclosure signs all over town and the line around the Salvation Army stretched around the block.

As for not supporting farm subsidies - I also invite me to send me info to educate me to your point of view. While the analogy of the pie auction and the wealth of the US farmer may be a clumsy one, I'm still not sure that farm subsidies are the way to go. Feel free to post links in the comments section.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

4th of July in George, Iowa, part 1: The Parade

In honor of my father, my sister and I went to George Iowa for the 125th anniversary of the town, my father's hometown and birthplace. I"m going to post a series of videos, photos, and remembrances of that weekend.

The Fourth of July Parade:
You can't have a fourth of July parade without men in funny hats driving souped up little cars. This is one of the best examples I've seen.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Vacation - all I ever wanted!

"Vacation, all I ever wanted! Vacation - had to get away!" The Go-Gos

So its the first official day of my much anticipated vacation. When I planned it, I was in the midst of manic whirl of work, emotional turmoil, and lack of sleep. So it is a bit jam packed with activities and not necessarily all that restful but still - vacation!

I flew from Amsterdam to New York City yesterday - seasoned traveler that I am, I think its indicative of my mental state and the chaos I've been living in that I somehow got lost on the way to the airport. I go to Schiphol about once a month, at least, and I somehow managed to get lost. Granted, I shared a bottle of Prosecco, a bottle of sauvignon blanc, and some port with friends at a sunlit cafe in Amsterdam the night before so I was a little hungover but to get lost!? I blame it on my friend Jennifer who gave me a shortcut through the Amsterdam Zuid station to Schiphol from my house. Of course, it wasn't her that misdirected me, instead it was my hungover brain that made me misremember that and head to the Amstel station instead. I had to backtrack and that made me lose thirty minutes as I hemmed and hawed over whether to take the metro or a train. Then I missed the train to the airport and hadto wait another 20 minutes but hopped onto the wrong one. I caught my mistake and finally made it to the airport with only 45 minutes before departure. Luckily, I have an "elite status" with KLM so can check in with business class and cut the cue. Some seasoned traveler I am!

After an uneventful flight where I watched "the Watchmen" and "He's Just Not that Into you" along with a bloody Mary at the recommendation of my friend Mireille, I slept a bit and began to unwind a little. I zipped through immigration and customs at JFK arriving outside the airport about 30 minutes after I landed. Then I decided to brave the New York subway system to get to Harlem, where I'm staying with friends. After an uneventful ride, I arrived at Alka's house to a cold beer, good food, catching up and gossip. Slowly, the tension is starting to melt away.

So what's my crazy agenda like? Friday and Saturday - wedding festivities for Brian and Kevin in Brooklyn. I anticipate dancing like mad and laughing hysterically with my date and best friend, Alec. Sunday after a sumptuous brunch, we intend to drive back to DC where I'll stay catching up with old friends until Thursday.

Thursday morning, I fly to Omaha, Nebraska where I meet my sister and we rent a car and drive to George, Iowa.
for a family reunion. It's the 125th anniversary of my father's hometown and Alyson and I are trekking out there to honor him.

After 4th of July fun including: a street dance, duck race, tractor pull, and pie auction. Americana!!! I have made a special iPod mix to get me prepared for my immersion into my roots and to entertain my sister who is feeling a bit cynical about it all. She remembers our trip to Iowa as being filled with pig farms, corn, and 18 wheelers. I don't see why that is a problem but to cheer her up, we plan a side trip to the Corn Palace in South Dakota when we drive back to Omaha (even though its a bit out of the way). We are accepting other road trip destinations as well. Giant balls of twine?

On Monday morning, I return to DC and hop on a train to Chester Country, Pennsylvania where my good friends Rick and Cat will wine and dine me as we sit on their porch, drink great beer, grill out, perhaps walk around and look at the cows in their rural community, and reminisce. Their kids are gone to grandmas that week which means I'll miss them but it also means the adults don't have to be responsible and not stay up too late drinking for fear of children bouncing on beds in the morning!

On Wednesday, I return to JFK where I fly to Paris.

In Paris, I pick up a rental car and drive to Honfleur in Normandie where I will meet up with my old friend William and his fiancee. We'll spend a few days there drinking calvados, norman cuisine, touring the countryside and fattening up and then I take the train back to Amsterdam.

A bit whirlwind but sure to be fun as it encompasses some of the things I love the most: my family, my friends, road trips, and good cuisine.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Remembering what's important

It's Thursday night on a beautiful sunny summer evening in Amsterdam. My neighbors are outside barbecuing and I can hear them from my bedroom window. I'm listening to Django Reinhardt and trying on dresses. I just got my hair cut. I'm making peace with my life - trying to obey my horoscope and see the beauty everywhere. Enjoying the sun on my face as I cycle home. Ignoring the scar from my fall in Colombia on my knee as I try on neglected sandals and high heels from DC. When I open my email to find a note from my sister in South Carolina. She's got old letters and my mother's old diary which I gave her after I found it in my mother's bedside table. My sister scanned in a letter that she found that I wrote to my mother when I was so young offering to start doing the cooking and washing around the house if I could start washing my own hair.

Suddenly all the ridiculous self imposed stress from work and the petty dramas which make up my every day life seem so small and far away. And I miss my family. I miss those who knew me when I was 8 years old and thought cooking with my mother was the coolest thing in the world. Hanging out with my dad when he walked down the street to pick up the Sunday papers. Riding bikes with my sister around the neighborhood and putting the cat into ridiculous costumes.

Sometimes I love my life - so "glamorous" living in Amsterdam, hanging out with fabulous and beautiful women, drinking wine in the park, and traveling to dangerous lands to try to help people. But right now I would trade it all just to come home again to 2 Warren Court, Sumter South Carolina and eat my dad's potato salad and catch up on the gossip of the court with him and just be home. Home Home Home. Where I often felt 14 years old and ridiculous but always loved and accepted.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Thunder and Lightening

There was an amazing thunderstorm in Amsterdam last night. The whole sky was lit up with lightening and the thunder made my house shake and the cat hide under the covers. It was truly impressive in its force. It makes one aware of our tenuous position on this flat little spit of land that reaches out into the sea.

I love thunderstorms - especially heat lightening on a hot hot summer night in South Carolina. But this one kept me up for hours and I couldn't get to sleep. My mind kept racing around the different worries that I have and rather than being comforted by the overwhelming power of the storm and my reminder of how insignificant I am in the face of nature, I instead was plagued with incredibly realistic dreams about my worries.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Getting through the Day pt 1

"What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it."

— Gabriel García Márquez

Sunday, April 19, 2009

"Surely every one realizes, at some point along the way, that he is capable of living a far better life than the one he has chosen."
-- Henry Miller

Saturday, April 11, 2009

In Memory

Easter often coincides with the anniversary of my mother's death - April 11, 1997. I was in graduate school in George Washington University in Washington DC just finishing my comprehensive exams. My mother had been struggling with ovarian cancer for about 2 years and had taken a turn for the worse but my father had hidden it from me so I could focus on school. All I remember from that frantic flight home to see her before she died was how beautiful the weather was. April 11 often coincides with the most beautiful part of the South Carolina spring at my childhood home in Sumter. The azaleas are a riot of coral, purple, hot pink, and red with some white blossoms tucked in for contrast. The tulips that I bought long ago in Amsterdam are bobbing in the breeze and the dogwood trees and wisteria are in an ecstasy of bloom. Even my father's prized lilac bushes that were specifically bred to survive the hot Southern summer produce fragrant purple flowers.

Last year I was in South Carolina nursing my father back to health after he had surgery for a broken arm. We spent the day quietly at the hospital, reflecting on how much we missed her but not talking too much. We're not a family that talks about our emotions freely. I took photos of the garden in Sumter realizing somehow that I wouldn't spend another Easter there.

This year, I had hoped to go to England to visit my mother and grandmother's grave. My mother was cremated and my father had half of her ashes placed in the grave of her mother and half kept in a marble box in South Carolina for the inevitable time when he would die and they would be comingled. We traveled to Stratton Saint Margaret, the village where my mother grew up in Wiltshire (now a part of Greater Swindon) and had a small ceremony there for her with her family who were unable to come to the funeral in South Carolina. 1998 was the last time I saw my Uncle Roy, my Aunt Pearl, and my cousins Francis and Rob.

I just couldn't get it together. I returned home from Colombia on April 8 and had to try to get the ticket and everything sorted by the 10th and my jet lag, unorganized finances, and the complex Dutch and UK train systems on line defeated me. So I stayed home this weekend. It was lovely in Amsterdam today. The weather was warm and balmy. The tree leaves are starting to bloom. The daffodils are out. My friend Naomi gave me a bouquet of daffodils (the favorite flowers of both my mother and I) which I placed in my favorite blue pitcher that my mother and father brought back from a vacation in Italy before Alyson and I were born. I went to the butcher shop and bought a lamb shoulder and to the market where I bought some peas and some mint. I have rosemary growing on my balcony.

I'll honor my mother's memory by cooking today. She taught me how to cook when I was about 10 years old. She was a great cook even though she didn't enjoy it like my father and I do. In previous years, I've always tried to cook something special on the anniversary of her death so as to be bonded in memory of all those Christmases and Thanksgivings and Easters cooking in our kitchen in Sumter with my mother (and then my father). Although I am not in her kitchen today, the skills that she taught me (it's all in the timing! hunger is the best sauce!) will stay with me. I'll always be with her when I cook.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

The Guerrilla disease

I haven’t worked in Latin America (proper) since 1997 when I worked with Witness for Peace and NCOORD looking at issues in Nicaragua and Guatemala and this trip to Colombia marks my return to the context. In 1999 I lived in Guatemala for a little while mostly to study Spanish (and drink beer, and dance meringue, and go to movies with my friend Jamie). I always wanted to return to work here but there are so many capable locals who can do the work that they don’t really need many folks from the US to come down. On top of that, the US has played such an active role in many of the conflicts (overthrowing the Chilean government, supporting the Argentine dictators, overthrowing the Guatemalan socialist leader, Arbenz on behalf of the United Fruit Company, waging war in Panama, Nicaragua and El Salvador, and our continuous attempts to over throw Castro in Cuba) that American do-gooders aren’t that welcome. In particular, Colombia has “suffered” from particular attention by the US government. Our insatiable appetite for cocaine has made the route from the coca fields from Coca right up the Central American peninsula quite dangerous. There’s money to be made there and the overlap between political battles between the government of Colombia waging a war against terror against left wing guerrillas with the aid of “paramilitary” groups combined with the money to be made in a land grab to run cocaine, grow bananas, pineapples, avocados, coffee, and tobacco has made life hard for the peasants (indigenous people, people of African descent, and mixed “mestiza” population) who work the land and try to scratch out a living. The US government spends a lot of money arming the government of Colombia to “fight narco-traffickers and terrorists” with little to show for the 1.7 million USD dollars per day that the US Government gives to the army but the longest running civil war in the world and the most internally displaced people in the world (an IDP is a “refugee” who has not crossed an internationally recognized border).

In fact the US influence here is so strong that I’m supposed to pretend I am Dutch or any other nationality besides American. I’m an attractive target for political guerrillas to trade with the Colombia government and I can put the teams here in danger because the patients will fear that I’m a spy from the government and the paramilitaries. While my experience in Lebanon with Hezbollah taught me that its better not to lie as they usually know already what nationality you are, I’ve resolved to say “I live in Amsterdam, the Netheralnds” and “I flew here from Holland” – all of which is true. It’s hard though because my Spanish isn’t great nd we’re not supposed to speak English in front of strangers including in bars or restaurants or in the clinic in front of patients. I mostly stand around listening eagerly and hoping to catch a few words. My dormant Spanish has made a creaky comeback and I can chat to an extent as long as the other person doesn’t speak too quickly. My vocabulary is good by my grammar sucks. I mostly limit myself to banal observations about how hot it is or how delicous the frijoles I'm eating are.

After 10 years of focusing primarily on Africa with some focus on Haiti, Nepal, and Sri Lanka – I’ve finally made it back to South America. I’m learning a lot here. Many of the issues that plague the people of Latin America also plague the people of Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, and the poor in North America… in particular, the disease of the poor are the ones that have the most restrictions on how you can treat them. One that I found particularly interesting is Leishmaniasis also known as Kala Azar. It appears to be a larvae from a but that when you are bit, injects parasites into your blood and you have wounds that won’t heal on your legs and arms and you can get parasites in your spleen, liver, and bone marrow. The bugs that carry this disease in Colombia live in rotted wood. In Colombia, we mostly treat women and children with this disease because they are the ones who are gathering wood or water and going out into the jungle the most. However, in many of the mountainous areas of Colombia, there are also a high number of Leishmaniasis cases.

The disease is very stigmatized and known as the Guerrilla disease. Therefore the government requires mandatory reporting of anyone who has this disease (violating their right to privacy) and strictly controls access to the medicine used to treat it. As we see mostly women and children, we are trying to lobby the government to drop this stigmatizing treatment of these patients and let us treat them so they can go on with their lives. While I have seen access to healthcare controlled for certain ethnic populations (poorly staffed and run health clinics for the Acholi in Uganda or the Ogadenis in Ethiopia), this is one of the first times I’ve encountered a disease linked to political issues.

The Lipstick Jungle

On my first day in Bogota (a Sunday), I sat watching television with the head of mission here. Every other commercial was for a fat burning pill or a special halter that lifted your breasts up high so you could have better cleavage. It made some of the back braces I’ve seen seem comfortable. My traveling companion is Colombian and we had a discussion about the different standards that Colombian people have about their physical appearance versus the European and Norte Americanos who come down here. Colombian women favor close fitting stretchy clothes (really, no matter what their body shape is) and wear skinny spaghetti strap tops and skin tight leggings. They always seem to have long painted nails, immaculately done hair and makeup. It’s quite different here than the normal humanitarian crisis where the fashion du jour is baggy linen pants, tee shirts with the company logo, bandanas, hiking boots or tevas, and shapeless faded clothes. It’s sometimes difficult to tell if I’m at a Grateful Dead show or a humanitarian emergency.

She was outraged by the expatriates that seem to see it as a political statement to never bathe, to wear clothes filled with holes, and wild unkempt hair and beards. “It’s disrespectful to the people who make an effort to look clean and tidy no matter what their status.” I agree with her. I’ve heard (mostly men) make proud comments at meetings about how they won’t wear a suit or be dictated to by others. “We don’t wear suits! We come in looking like we have come straight from the field!” they tell me as they sit on tables rather than chairs and stomp around headquarter in downtown sophisticated Amsterdam in hiking boots, pants that zip off to turn into shorts, with crazed looking hair and beards.

The expats in Colombia still wear the “uniform” of faded tee shirt, linen pants, and sandals but the national staff here normally prefer to wear tight jeans, sexy tops, and the shapeless open logo’d vest over the top that can be quickly shed at closing time. The hair is immaculate and the make up is on. I think its starting to rub off at least on the female staff. I found this quote in a report from head quarters to the field.

“Colombia is a favourable country for different kind of (plastic) surgeries. For ex-pats this has shown to be attractive. However, as every surgery has its risk, it is recommended to undergo any elective surgery after the mission and not during holidays. “

Already I feel super frumpy in my baggy linens and tee shirt. I have taken care to wash my hear and apply product and makeup each morning but still the national staff seem to regard me with a sad and patronizing look for my inability to look like I’m on my way to a disco in 100 degree weather with 100% humidity in the middle of the jungle. My preference for organic fabrics and loose fitting clothes is at odds with the polyesther stretch outfits and short shorts here. At least I’m wearing lipstick and mascara!

Monday, March 30, 2009

Small World: Colombia, South America

I am currently near the border with Panama and Colombia which requires flying from Medellin into Apartado – a true “banana republic” that is a flat hot area completely covered in banana plantations. From the air it is a very strange site – completely covered in the tall banana plants with the fruit covered in blue bags to protect it from insects. After a day of meetings with the team here, we headed out to Rio Sucio – a project with the Afro Colombian population. This required a 45-minute drive up the highway passing ranchers on horseback and military checkpoints to a town called Turbo. Turbo has a thriving fishing industry and we drove up to the riverside that was strangely reminiscent of Ghana – African men selling and haggling over fish with small boats made out of hollowed logs and big old tramp steamers cruising in while women cook fried fish and serve fruit juices to everyone. The organization's boat is high powered and seats about 12 in bench seats and we all wear our logo branded life jackets and climbed in under the flag and headed out. We crossed the Gulf of Uraba past a Colombian navy ship looming large and gray out of the middle of the brackish water and turned into the river. It was a three-hour boat ride down the long river past small communities to Rio Sucio where we run a medical clinic. At one point we passed two Afro-Colombian men carrying three horses in their canoe as they headed across the river to the big city.

Rio Sucio is a city that is at crucial geographic area in Colombia – near the proposed Pan-American Highway and on the main rivers that narco traffickers use to move “product” up to the Americas. The Government of Colombia and the FARC guerrillas also fight for control of this area and people are repeatedly forced off their lands. Small “Peace Communities” of collectively-owned land have been established here but there are few government services and the presence of narco traffickers, Para militaries who regularly threaten society’s “unwanted”, the guerrilla and the army means that people are often forced to flee their land and few government workers are willing to move to these areas. Rio Sucio is a small town right on the river that is regularly flooded every winter. It reminded me of both Haiti and West Africa. The population is mostly Afro Colombian and the loud reggaeton music blaring out of the discos in the “Zona Rosa” made it feel like the Caribbean. I was there to advice the clinic on how to improve their services that they offer to women who have been raped and beaten (a pretty common phenomenon if the nuns who came to our clinics are to be believed.)

The living conditions in the house were not too bad. The ground floor is the clinic with two modern toilets and showers for the eight or so staff that live there. The upper floor has a porch that overlooks the river (and the little toilet houses that other houses have built right out on the river) five bedrooms and a big communal kitchen with a small gallery porch overlooking the town’s main street. One of the boat drivers cooked us coconut rice and red beans with pork that were divine! Just down the street was a small market that sold beer and coca cola and there was a small TV down in the clinic. It was hot but there was electricity and fans – a big improvement over many of the places I’ve stayed in Africa.

Next door to the clinic was a small NGO that supported community health promoters. I was very interested in them because when I worked for Witness for Peace in graduate school, I learned about a book called “Where there are no doctors” which promoted the grassroots type theory that communities should not wait for the state or international organizations to come to provide healthcare for them but instead should take care of it themselves by training community members to provide basic healthcare. The organization that I work for had just signed a contract with this group to extend their services. I had always been very impressed and inspired by the “Where there is no doctor” model (I’ve got all the books in the series and have used parts of “where there is no doctor for women” for myself). In 1997 after my mother died, I spent about three months working for a group called the National Coordinating Office for Refugees and Displaced People of Guatemala (NCOORD) keeping their office running until their new executive director came to town. The previous director, a man named Curt W., was a super nice guy who discussed with me the ideology of the Christian Left, taught me about the concept of “solidarity” and “accompaniment” that characterized the Christian Left ‘s resistance to the Ronald Reagan sponsored Contra Wars in Nicaragua in the 1980s.

He was a kind and funny man and we talked for hours about where to go in life. At the time, right before my mother died, I was planning on joining Witness for Peace in Guatemala to work with maquiladoras (female sweatshop workers). He had decided that this sort of human rights work was good but he wanted to contribute more so he went back to school to become a physician’s assistant so he could actually deliver healthcare to the population. He was off to Quintana Roo in Mexico to start implementing the “Where there is no Doctor” approach. I was very inspired by him and a bit frustrated with the economic advocacy that Witness for Peace was doing. I ended up taking a job with Family Health International on the Women’s Studies Project where I worked on clandestine contraceptive use in Mali, the impact of being infertile in Egypt, and domestic violence in Bolivia. While I didn’t like the USAID funded approach of Family Health International, I never forgot Curt and the work he was doing and eventually when my contract ended I went to Guatemala to study Spanish. I hooked up with a small NGO providing healthcare there and met a woman who was also studying Spanish. We spent long hours arguing about approaches. (She eventually ended up in Liberia working for CRS and I saw her five years later there!) Although I ended up working in a USAID funded health organization for four more years after Guatemala, I was always inspired by the work of NCOORD, Witness for Peace, and other Latin American Ngos that practiced real proximity with the people – living amongst them in a humble manner and helping them meet their own needs.

I eventually joined MSF looking for a type of experience as promised by MSF’s credo of temoignage and commitment to speaking out about injustice suffered by their patients.

Fast Forward back to Colombia. After two days of meetings with the team and walking around the town, I met the famous Dr. Alan who ran the NGO. He looked familiar to me – a smiling red haired man with a beard. We said hello in the street and I said to the German doctor I was walking with, “he looks familiar. I bet I’ve met him before.“ The next morning early at 6am, we got up and loaded up the boat to return to Apartado. Dr. Alan was coming along for the ride. I introduced myself to him. We started talking and he told me that he knew Witness for Peace and had been on their board of directors. We started talking about people that we knew in common and eventually it came up that he had worked at NCOORD. I asked him if he was in the DC office and he said no, he was normally in Chicago. I said I had worked there in the DC office for a few months and knew a man named Curt there. He looked at me funny. “Curt W.?” I said – yes I think that was his name. He started laughing, “I’m Curt W.! I go by Alan here in Colombia because it’s easier for everyone to pronounce!” It turns out he’s been living in Rio Sucio for six years working as a coordinator for the health promoters program. He left about four months ago to return to the US to write the new “Where there is No Doctor” with his wife and child. He had just returned for his first trip back to Rio Sucio. We talked for three hours catching up on our lives and talking. I never thought I would run into him again but I got the chance to tell him how much he had inspired me and put my life on a different course.

What a small world.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

My eulogy to my father

We gave my father full military honors yesterday for his 23 years in the US Air Force with Taps, a flag, and a 21 gun salute. Here is the eulogy that I wrote and read at my father's funeral yesterday followed by the poem posted before, "Somewhere over the Rainbow" by Judy Garland, his favorite singer and then remembrances from friends. We closed it with the theme song to Zorba the Greek which summed up to Alyson and I his joie de vivre and love for that sunsplashed country and its music, food, and people.

The Eulogy
When my father was ill last year, I came home from overseas to help Alyson take care of him as he recuperated. We spent a lot of time together and one day he told me how much he hated growing old – that it was not for sissies. We reflected on how some of his woes were caused by his lifestyle – good food, good drink, and living life to its fullest. “Would you do it differently, if you knew?” I asked him. “No,” he said firmly. “To thine own self be true.” And he was – he was always true to himself.

He was born in George, Iowa, a small town near the border of Minnesota where he had what seemed to be an idyllic childhood. He told us his stories of his grandmothers hollyhocks and four o’clocks, rhubarb pie, hanging out with his friends at the swimming hole, helping out his grandfather Pa at the bar that they owned and running home from outraged teachers to be protected from spankings by Ma. But he lived through the depression (and we were always reminded of this when he would advise us not to spend all our money on frivolous things and that a sandwich with one piece of cheese was PERFECTLY ADEQUATE). His father fought in World War II ending up in Papua New Guinea which I recently visited. His mother moved to Minnesota to work to support the family and he told us funny stories of selling gardenias to soldiers out on dates and being terrorized by priests at Catholic boarding school. We heard stories of his working in a hotel in New Mexico, picking apples (and being fired) in Washington State, working in a bowling alley and a bank in Los Angeles. He talked about his glamourous cousin Sue who took him to lunch at the Top of the Mark in San Francisco and cherished memories of driving through the night to come home to his cousins Catherine and the Veenker clan to drink beer, play cards, and catch up on the family gossip.

Eventually he joined the US Air Force- and traveled the world as he had traveled the US. He went to England where he developed a deep love of British culture. He was stationed in Turkey and Greece – we have the old Bouzouki records to prove it. Eventually, he ended up in England again where he met my mother, as legend has it, on his birthday. He claims he wooed her with American whiskey and cigarettes. They fell in love, married, and had adventures together all over the world – from Taiwan to Belgium to settle in Sumter, South Carolina.

Alyson and I remember South Carolina the best – Mom and Dad dancing together and family parties with other mixed British-American friends. Dad would pick us up from school when we got sick and haul our bicycles home. Parties at the house included Dad’s specialties: Brandy Crème Royal, Cherries Jubiliee, his world famous Iowa potato salad and other amazing meals. It’s a tradition to watch Jeopardy in our family and he was so proud when I made it onto the show (although he soundly beat us at a game of Trivial Pursuit the night before my audition). He sat through numerous football games, marching band contests and piano recitals but also went to New York City to see Broadway shows and enjoyed long evenings at the beach playing Steal the Pack.

I received many gifts from my father: a love for traveling the world - he gave me great advice that I foolishly ignored about the tourist traps of camel rides behind the pyramids in Egypt; a love for reading – sharing a taste in British police procedurals, fantasy novels, and “bawdy thrillers”; a love for cooking – one of my most cherished memories is making his famous spaghetti sauce one last time this past Christmas and arguing over how much celery to use; liberal politics – oh how he missed not being in Sumter when a Democrat took the White House in November so he could rub it in to his Republican friends, and a love for music and dancing – including Frank Sinatra, big band music, and Broadway musicals. His love for adventure and sense of humor made our lives fun and rich. He would come to visit me in Chapel Hill or Washington DC and even Guatemala – often staying up later than the youngsters and regularly shaming us on the dance floor. One of our favorite stories is how he charmed a Dutch girl in Guatemala away from my friend Jamie because he was such a good dancer. We had to drag him out of the disco.

He was always surrounded by women– from the ladies of Warren Court like Lynn and Sandy and the Wand girls visiting him in the hospital, to the ladies of the British Wives Club, to the nurses and physical therapists with whom he flirted during his illnesses. Even in his last hours, a nurse admired his fine head of hair – one of his biggest vanities. “Imagine that,” he said to me once “ 80 years old and still vain.”

I'd like to thank my sister Alyson who brought Dad into her home and took care of him the last six months. The last 11 months since he fell and broke his arm have been hard for all of us. When his good friend Mrs. Farris gave us a photo from his 80th birthday party the other day, Alyson and I were quite taken aback to see how he had aged in a year. He told Alyson once how shocked he was to look in the mirror and see that he had become an old man overnight. Whenever we would be worried that he was becoming a hermit, traveling only to Aldi’s and the library, we would suggest he try out the senior center. He would tell us with great outrage that he didn’t want to hang out with old people and he was CERTAINLY not going to learn small engine repair or whatever scut work they palmed off on old folks.

Alyson and I hated having his freedom curtailed and leaving his beloved house in Sumter. Moving to Columbia was difficult for all of us. However, even in his last months with us, we still enjoyed our family pleasures of watching “obscure Irish dramas”, arguing about politics, visiting with dear friends like the Arndts and Farris’ for gossip and British treats, and cooking elaborate breakfasts with both bacon AND sausage. While his death came as a shock to Alyson and I, we both feel some sort of peace in our grief, because he is reunited with our mother who he loved, and won’t have to suffer the indignities of old age any more. We can both imagine him now, dancing and laughing and enjoying all the good memories of a long life filled with love and happiness.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Poem on the occasion of the death of my father

A Parting Guest

What delightful hosts are they—
Life and Love!
Lingeringly I turn away,
This late hour, yet glad enough
They have not withheld from me
Their high hospitality.
So, with face lit with delight
And all gratitude, I stay
Yet to press their hands and say,
“Thanks.—So fine a time! Good night.”

James Whitcomb Riley

Monday, February 23, 2009

My father

At about 9pm, February 21, 2009 my father, Donald Julius Martin, died. My sister, Alyson, was with him and she said he died very peacefully. I am, of course, grief stricken as I loved my father very much. But he hated not being able to do what he wanted exactly when he wanted and how he wanted and he missed my mother very much. He was extremely independent and active up until last March when he fell and broke his arm which led to him moving in with my sister in Columbia and leaving his beloved house in Sumter. Here's one of the last photos I took of him this Christmas when we cooked his famous spaghetti sauce together in the house in Columbia.

He will be very much missed.

SlumDog Millionaire

I wish this had happened to me when I was in India

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Pink City Days in Rajasthan

I’m in Jaipur, the Pink City of Rajasthan India.

After a riotous few days in Mumbai, racing around the city in auto rickshaws and catching up with old friends at a conference on Sexual and Reproductive Health and being hassled by immature coworkers, I am finally on vacation in India. It’s long been my dream to come to India and I’m just disappointed that I can’t spend more time here. Traveling for work is completely different to coming someplace to travel. I squeezed in a few hours each night to see a couple of things in Delhi and Mumbai but I wish I had the time to see all the different provinces of India better.

First impressions of Jaipur:
·I arrived at eight am on a small commuter flight. The streets were wide and lined with trees from the airport. That combined with the men’s traditional dress and the 1940s styling of the taxi made me feel as if I were stepping back in time.
·My room at the lovely Madhuban guesthouse wasn’t ready but I sat in the gracious restaurant by the pool in a window seat and drank tea for an hour or so and then slept in the canopy bed for a few hours.
·After a drive to the “New Gate” of the old city, I walked through the streets and saw an elephant carrying a bride, three or four camels carrying carts, numerous cows, brightly dressed women in saris, and too many young men trying to sell me gems, rickshaw rides, textiles, and the like.
· As the sun lowered in the sky, I watched the famous pink city glow in the fading sun and saw a movie being shot at the City Palace. No Shah Rukh Khan, sadly. He's my current Bollywood crush.
· At twilight, I watched a bunch of local young men play cricket in a lot until my presence became a distraction and I had to jump in a rickshaw.
· I went to a Hindu temple and watched everyone pray and sing while draped in garlands of marigolds.
· I ate Masala peanuts - roasted peanuts mixed with chopped onion, cilantro, tomato, lime juice, chili, and spices with a Carlsburg beer and some garlic naan for dinner.
· I rode a bicycle rickshaw “Indian Helicopter” back to the hotel, seriously underestimating how far away it was and got stuck in a traffic jam with my pashmina wrapped around my face and watched three Rajasthani brass bands compete to see who could play the loudest over three different weddings right next to each other. Another elephant went by and several silver decorated horsedrawn carriages. Wedding mania!
· I ordered my favorite sweet lime soda and turned on my iPod to sit on the balcony of my guesthouse and relax before bed.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

First impressions of New Delhi, India

Beep Beep! Hooooooooooooonnnnkkkk! Beep Beep!

That's my first impression of New Delhi and one that hesn't changed much in the past 2 1/2 days. I arrived about midnight on Wednesday and the MSF driver took me to my hotel. We dodged traffic (a free flowing carefree thing where you signal moves with your horn and ignore red lights, pedestrians, lane dividers, and giant trucks). Over giant overpasses and through enormous roundabouts we went. Amsterdam and Washington DC are rural villages compared to this place. After coming through a million diversions due to ongoing construction of the new metro line we went until we finally arrived at my hotel, the hotel Vikram, an unassuming little place with a lovely view of the Metro construction and highway.

I then checked into my hotel room. It was pretty quiet... until I went into the bathroom. It's not unlike showering on a major highway. But I'm a heavy sleeper and in the bedroom with the overhead fan on for white noise and the curtains shut, you don't really hear the horns in the background.

After two days in the office getting ready for the workshop, I finally stopped working long enough on Saturday to try to see some of the town. The first thing I did was go to buy some yarn for an exercise for our training. The doorman sent me down to Central Market in a rickshaw (basically bicycle attached to seat for two on the back). I assumed since it was a bicycle, it wasnt'far away and we would be going down residential streets - Nope! Off we went in the little rickshaw onto the major highway that runs in front of my hotel. I often think that the only way I survive on these trips of mine is a very underdeveloped sense of danger. I just held my skirt down around my knees and tried to look unconcerned.

After running aroudn the market and getting some rope (since yarn appears to be a foreign concept), I got back into a rickshaw to go to the hotel. This time, the rickshaw driver found an even more congested route back to the hotel. At one point, trucks, and buses were overpassing us and honking. He pulled into the "left turn lane" near the hotel and we sat in the middle of the largest roundabout you've ever seen in your life as cars, motorcycles, tuk-tuks, and trucks roared around us. Then he made a break for it.

I decided to upgrade for the second portion of my trip and get a tuk-tuk (three wheeler scooter) for my excursion out shopping. Again - back onto the highway and ripping through traffic honking away. All the rickshaw drivers can do is ring their bells to join the din but the three-wheelers have a proper horn. At every intersection, we stop and every inch of space is filled with motorbike drivers with women perched on the back, men on bikes with giant loads of wood, people on foot, policeman on motorbikes with their supervisors behind them, and more three-wheelers. I was so relieved to finally get to the destination.

It was called Hauz Khaz, an urban village that promised to have art galleries, antique shops, and other goodies to explore. After looking in the gorgeous antique shops and realizing that I could afford things I just had no idea how I would get them home. The "urban village" is on the grounds of a beautiful park containing the ruins of the tomb of Firoz Shah which means the "Royal Tank" - which is a reservoir and overlooks a lovely green mandmade lake where people loll about in the grass and chat with each other and young lovers hold hands and gaze at each other soulfully. A bunch of men were playing cricket with some young boys. I sat in the park for a while where I made the acquaintance of every teenage boy in town, I think.

Anyway, it was lovely and warm and breezy and the teenage boys were polite and curious. I didn't feel threatened by them and I heard them discussing the mystery of how I can be American but live in Amsterdam amongst themselves later. After another nervewracking ride back in the three-wheeler, I returned to the hotel.

The meeting participants are arriving tonight and I'm having dinner with one of the facilitators who is Indian and has promised to navigate the restaurant choice for me. Tomorrow, the Taj Mahal!!!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Woe is Me

I'm becoming more Dutch every day. I had a bicycle accident this morning.

I was zooming to work listening to my ipod with my giant India Lonely Planet and a box of Swiss chocolates in the only bag I could find hanging from my handlebars. I got around the corner and BOOM. The bag got caught in the spokes of the front wheel, I ground to a halt, I flipped over the handlebars and dragged the bike and myself into the center of the intersection and landed on my face in the middle of the road.

Luckily, nothing was broken except my bike and my Lonely Planet (and tragically, the box of Swiss chocolates). I hurt my instep of my foot, scraped my knee and ripped a hole in my jeans, and destroyed my pride. A man walking to work rushed over to help me and helped me stand up. I limped with my destroyed bike to the bike shop that was conveniently located right where I fell. I then had to limp to work on foot feeling in complete shock and embarrassed.

When I got to work (it was really cold this morning), I had crystallized salt from the tears on my cheek.

But the bike store people were really nice and informed me that statistically it is very difficult to kill yourself in a bicycle accident. So I got that going for me.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

New Year's Resolutions

Well its a bit late for New Year's resolutions as we are 11 days into the new year but as this is the last day of my vacation, I'm officially counting the new year as starting tomorrow.

1. Treasure every moment I have with my family. It's killing me to leave South Carolina but my father is doing better and is fairly healthy right now. So I leave with a more calm state of mind than I had in September. I'm looking forward to the big family reunion in Iowa in July.

2. More connections with friends - I really enjoyed seeing some old friends on this last trip. Talking for hours seemed like we had never NOT been in touch. It's good to connect and it reminds me that human interaction is what its all about. It's not about making money, accumulating things, or even accumulating more countries on my "Where I've Traveled" list. It's about authentic human connections that make you laugh, cry, and think.

3. Less time on the internet. I've become addicted to reading blogs. I guess its the same as when I read magazines a bunch but with blogs, there's so much information coming at you all day long that I have to do something about it. I'm going to try to limit myself to 2 hours a day.

4. Being more active. My body is aging every day and while I feel like I'm still 16, the creaking in my knees when I squat down to fix the pilot light or the aches in my shoulders after raking the yard are reminders that I'm not. I have to appreciate my body and staying active will keep me younger longer!

5. Continuing 2008's resolution to be more creative. I started a painting class in 2008 which I love. I'm going to really hunker down and work on writing. I have an idea for a novel based on my experiences in West Africa. Also, some travel stories that I never really wrote down anywhere. More photography. More cooking. More viewing of art.

6. Less toxicity in my life. I have to start ignoring all the people who make me crazy. There are toxic people and organizations in this world. They suck up your time and energy. "That which does not destroy me makes me stronger" used to be my motto but phew - I'm tired of the struggle, constantly struggling to not be destroyed. It's not a challenge anymore to deliberately face off in battle with the destructive elements of the world. I am going to minimize the things which make me crazy and maximize the things I enjoy. If this means less prestige, less status, or being more isolated, so be it. At least I'll have more energy to focus on creativity, my family, and my close friends. "Living well is the best revenge" can be my new motto.