Saturday, October 02, 2010

Fit for duty

I'll be heading back to work in the next few weeks. I am a little nervous but ready to jump back into the fray! I'm looking forward to new challenges and figuring out what's happened while I've been gone. But some lessons learned from this time off -

* I have to maintain a healthy work-life balance. I like my life in Amsterdam and have made some new friends and deepened friendships with other. I have to make sure life is not just about my job.

* I have to try to stay focused on my own objectives - there are things I want to accomplish in my career, things I want to accomplish for myself - giving everything leaves me with not much left over for myself. I don't want to do that again.

* I've got to make sure I keep my eye on what is important - trying to help survivors of gender-based violence - not worrying about the state of affairs internally in my organization. I've only got so much energy - I'd rather spend it on survivors and empowering women around the world!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Other Social Media

I haven't been very prolific in writing this summer - probably a sign of my burnout. But I am doing a lot of reading and you can follow some of my thoughts in other ways too if you so desire.

On Tumblr

On Flickr

On Twitter

and there is always facebook but we're probably already friends there if you have a facebook account!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Humanitarians aka Mercenaries, Missionaries, and Mad Men: Part Two

(I left this post lingering unpublished from my return from my sick leave. It was written in October 2010. I'm in a different place now but I think I'll post it anyway.)

Well I've finally decided... I'm in it to win it (to paraphrase Hillary Clinton). I'm not giving up on humanitarian aid yet. A couple of things have convinced me...

1. Helping a friend apply for a training course, I was reading her writing sample. I got pretty excited about it and had lots of ideas on how to beef it up. I want to turn this writing sample into a joint paper on how quality of care can be as important a humanitarian principle as neutrality or independence.  I feel like I have something to say again... I want to write some papers for publication and I want to make an impact on this crazy profession again. I think I'm getting ready to find my voice, which has been lost for a while. 

2. I don't feel so alone anymore. With so many of my friends in the same exact organization are burned out right now and struggling.... I realize that its not just me. Sitting in the misery and depths of burn-out, I felt like a crazy person. I was the only one who was so angry and outraged. I was so exhausted and tired of fighting all the time. I was sensitive and impacted by everything. I felt like my skin had been scraped off and there was nothing protecting me anymore. But the more I get out of that state and talk to others, I realize that it is normal to struggle in abnormal situations. I need to take much much better care of myself nowadays. I have to learn to prioritize keeping myself healthy and de-stressed. I'm never going to change my passions and personality but I can change some bad habits.

3. Opportunities are presenting themselves to me. I've been stuck wondering what to do... but just by stopping for a little bit and ceasing to try to find the answer for everything and MAKE things happen, I've suddenly been shown a few different ways I can move forward. And a few little glimpses of a changed life that could make me happy and content. And they are all still related to being a humanitarian worker -I am not going to have to drastically change my identity. I have a better idea of who I can be in my career but I realize my career is not the most important thing to me anymore.

4. Discovering how wonderful and supportive my friends and family are. While I'm dealing with burnout, I'm not depressed. I've struggled with depression in the past. I'm just plain ole damn exhausted. And my friends who check in on me, call me up, meet me for picnics, take me to Poland, and listen to my frequent crazed thoughts about this and that are my lifeline. No man is an island. But I've felt like an island for a while - but thanks to my sister, my friends, and even random new strangers that I meet at after football celebrations and talk to - I realize that there is a lot of love and good things out there. I'm building back up my batteries.  You gotta have a good network to survive this life. 

So what have I learned in my downtime? 

Humanitarian agencies can be dangerous places to work. While my friends who don't work in the business don't really get why its different than other bad organizations,  the ones who do understand that its a toxic soup of poor management, nepotism, severe power politics, and a never ending supply of idealistic volunteers who will always step forward to accept the abuse. I think its the idealism thats the worst part of it.... over and over again, I've had to end conversations with people i've just met about where I work. I'm out on stress leave and when people hear where i work, they can't believe it. I don't want to tell them about it. I believe my organization is one of the best providers of humanitarian assistance in the world. I don't want to kill off charitable contributions! A lot of the stress is brought on by my own inability to make boundaries, draw lines, say no, and protect myself. The good people outweigh the bad but sadly the good ones have to leave after a while to protect their sanity. They often return but always trying to warn the rest of us about how bad it can be.  But the abusers of power, the corrupt people, the incompetent, and the (frankly) insane are tolerated here because "they really care about women and children" or because "you don't know what they were capable of doing back in (historic crisis)". Idealists all, we tolerate abuse and poor working conditions on the belief that those who are there must be good people just like we hope we are.

A friend once told me, when I was on a quixiotic quest to improve DDR programs in West Africa by becoming a donor,  that going to work for the World Bank would kill me. "That beast is too big to poison from within" - he said poetically (he's a pretty poetic and philosophical guy and the one to take with you if you get harrassed by the cops in Kinshasa... he can sweet talk his way anywhere!). I'm an idealist and I always think that I can improve things and contribute to the bigger good. I want to give away all my good ideas and work in teams and I believe deeply that consensus and participatory decision-making are the ways to go. But the place I work right now doesn't work that way. That beast might be too big to poison from within. 

So I have to find my own way - I don't want to leave. I still have things to accomplish here. I am going to have to fight to keep working there - I have also learned to find the other thinkers like me and stick by them. It's too tempting to get pulled into the clique but as my beloved graduate school professor once told me, "As an anthropologist, you are always going to be the gadfly". I want change and I want to improve the world to assist the most vulnerable women and children out there - that's not going to happen by being coopted by power or by shutting up when the going gets tough. I believe in what I do and I know there are others out there that do as well - I find them every time I go to the field or meet a new colleague (usually the depressed looking ones lurking by the copy machine).  To use a cliche - its a marathon not a sprint so I have to change tactics and build up new stamina. I need to start ignoring the crazies and focusing on the good folk.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Chronicle of my eating adventures in Paris

So I'm going to chronicle my eating adventures in Paris to the best of my ability on my "food blog", Bleu Cheese and Red Wine.

So far, I've written about my purchases at the local grocery store (a bit different than what I can find at the Piggly Wiggly but not THAT different!) and my tastings of the cheeses that I purchased.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Make me laugh

My friend and I were discussing serious issues and we both realized we just need a laugh. Following is a list of funny movies I compiled for her that I love:

Pineapple Express
Shaun of the Dead (I love zombie films!)
Hamlet 2 (very cheesy but funny)
Forgetting Sarah Marshall (for Russell Brand and the pig killing scene)
Fish Called Wanda (classic!)
Wet Hot American Summer (if you ever went to summer camp)
Pootie Tang (maybe because I watched it 10 times in Haiti but I think its hilarious)
Rushmore (I saved Latin, what did you do?)
Stripes/ Ground hog Day/ Caddy Shack/ Meatballs (you can't lose with Bill Murray!)
40 Year Old Virgin (just for the closing credits)
Best in Show
Princess Bride (b/c I am a romantic)
Office Space (You've been missing a lot of work lately, I wouldn't say I've been missing it! )
Anchorman (for the jazz flute! and after shave!)
South Park: The Movie
Raising Arizona/ The Big Lebowski
Young Frankenstein/ Blazing Saddles (My sister and I used to watch these on HBO and laugh for days)
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (classic)

Friday, June 25, 2010

An amazing video of Istanbul

I went to Istanbul for vacation in March. It was a fascinating and lovely city... here's a nice video that captures it.

Istanbul from O.G. on Vimeo.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Humanitarians aka Mercenaries, Missionaries, and Mad Men: Part One

Me on my first trip to West Africa in October 2003

I've been doing a lot of thinking about what to do with myself and my career the past few weeks. I just exchanged emails with my former boss at Refugees International to ask him for advise and he said "For better or for worse, you are an international humanitarian/human rights worker" (and I could hear his tone - deal with it!) I do love the field and the work but I was very close to losing my belief in it a few weeks ago due to the non-stop stress this job entails.

First of all, this field is filled with crazy people! The current wisdom is that all you find is Mercenaries, missionaries, or madmen (or misfits, depending on who you ask). I've certainly encountered them all - from the jungles of West Africa to the cities of the Middle East.  And am I one of them? I certainly was close to becoming a misfit five weeks ago when I found myself telling stories of Haiti and freaking out my "civilian"  friends. We're adrenaline junkies, I think, with ill-developed senses of danger, and willing to take risks that many others from our families and friends wouldn't do. My family were always aghast that I was EXCITED to go to war zones and help out.

But where else would I work if I wasn't an aid worker? Before I went into development and humanitarian work, I worked in the restaurant business (with two very very short sojourns for a mortgage company and a retail store and a longer one in a healthfood store). I always knew I wanted to "help" in some way. My heros growing up were Wonder Woman and Florence Nightingale (I was always Batgirl when we played make-believe because I thought her motorcycle was cooler than Wonder Woman's plane though)!

As I figured out what I wanted to do with my life in college, I tried on three courses of study: Journalism (which I quickly dropped because it was boring),  Pre-Medicine (which I dropped because I hated studying for chemistry and math), and International Studies (where I thrived). I turned the Journalism interest into an English Language minor because I loved to read and write poetry - but international studies fascinated me. Latin American wars of independence, ethnic conflict in Africa, The Soviet Union, and nuclear war - (after all it was the 80s). I ended up following the Soviet Union the most due to a charismatic professor, Gordon Smith, and fantasies of moving to Moscow and fighting the cold war, I guess. But studying these things didn't give me a clue about what I could do with my life.

After college, I went to work in the restaurant biz as a bartender. Restaurants are filled with even crazier people than humanitarian agencies - both the staff and the customers. When I was 21 years old, I managed my first restaurant and I had to make schedules around people's rehab, parole hearings, and keep them from the drugs during the work hours and clean up the sex after work. I don't even remember going to bed for two years because I stayed out drinking every night and just passed out every night.  But at least I wasn't bored out of my mind like I was in the bank or the "Joyful Alternative", the hippie clothing shop I worked in. I yearned to leave South Carolina and see the world but I was broke and not sure how to do it.

Having been born in Taiwan and growing up in Belgium to a military family, I knew I wanted to travel the world and I knew that I was fascinated and appalled by war. The military was not an option for me so I thought about the Peace Corps. When I worked in a health food store dishing out advice on herbs, vitamins, macrobiotic food, and organic vegetables, I became aware of alternative medicines, indigenous rights, and anti-corporate anger. This pushed me into women's health as I was always finding young women who couldn't afford birth control or abortions coming to me to get herbs to miscarry. I became radicalized.  I wanted to work on women's health in Latin America.  The Peace Corps wanted to send me to do fish farming in Africa. I passed on the Peace Corps.

I moved to DC and went to grad school... I was finally on track.

A blog that I love, Tales from the Hood, wrote recently about how Americans understand humanitarianism and human rights. How we focus on our rights, the rights of others, and look at things from a rights-based perspective.  I am typical of this approach - I started out in the field of development by working with grassroots organizations to defend human rights in Latin America at Witness for Peace and then the National Coordinating Office on Displaced in Guatemala. I wanted to be a human rights defender and I loved working on the issue of economic justice for women in Guatemala and Nicaragua. The erosion of the advances that women had made in the Sandinistas and in the refugee camps under the new economic reforms was my rallying cry. Women's rights are human rights!

Through a series of weird missteps, I took a detour into large scale USAID funded health and development and began to learn about Africa.  I focused on reproductive health and sexual health and gender issues. While I was junior and naive, I had a lot of opportunity to see from the inside how ineffectual the USAID development model was and how the money all came rolling back to the US through the use of highly paid consultants, business class flights, and US only rules for purchasing cars, computers, etc. I struggled to implement a sophisticated computer driven health information system in Haiti where they probably would have been better off with pencils and papers and calculators. Through a wonderful Haitian colleague who was 20 years my senior, I learned a lot about the Haitian people and how decision-making went down.

Throughout it, I felt that my role was to use my privileged status as an American to move forward the goals of the people in countries less fortunate than my own. From time to time, I would become deeply aware of the injustices in my own country - lack of access to health care, poverty in the deep south and on the Native American reservations, inner city violence, and the like and fret over why I chose to work outside the country. But I also knew, selfishly, that I wanted to experience the world and meet people from places I would never venture just on 'holiday'.

I was determined to work on the issue of gender-based violence and help women and children around the world who suffered from this violence.  Whether through development or relief work, I didn't really care but I struggled to carve out a niche working on this. The advent of the Bush Administration made me realize that I couldn't stomach US style development and I went into what I thought was the more principled field of humanitarian work.

So where do I stand now? Six years of 'humanitarianism'  - three from a US advocacy based perspective, three from a European operational perspective. I've been to West Africa, Haiti, Sri Lanka, Sudan, the Congo, Somali region, Zimbabwe, Lebanon and Colombia.

I've been disgusted at the industry - because that's what it is, an industry. I've been repulsed by the selfishness and paternalistic and racist attitudes of some "humanitarian" workers. I've been annoyed by the lack of thoughtfulness, integrity and intelligence in program design. I hate how they treat us, the workers, like cogs in a machine, to be replaced when we wear out.

But I've been inspired by truly wonderful people - 25 year old nurses struggling to do the best with limited resources for their abandoned and stigmatized patients, business men and former soldiers who have left behind comfortable lives to work side by side with mechanics, truck drivers, and office workers all over the world who treat them as trusted buddies, and smart creative crazy people who don't take no for an answer.  I can't imagine my life not being involved in this world as much as I sometimes hate it. So here I am, burned out from non stop travel to Somalia-Ethiopia border, the highlands of Papua New Guinea, the border of Myanmar-India, and post-earthquake Haiti in less than six months while weathering the death of my beloved father and assorted family stress.

Next up: Where do I go from here?  (This is the part where I solicit ideas and strength from the three people who read this blog)....

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Humanitarian aid worker pick up lines

A blog that I read, Tales from the Hood ran a little blog post about "pick up lines" for Aid workers.

Some of their offerings included:
“Guess we’d better test these reproductive health kits ourselves….”

“Your pipeline is soooo big!”

“Don’t worry: I can do distribution all night long.”

“Care to join me for a needs assessment?”

“Is that a Thuraya in your pocket, or are you just pleased to see me?”

“Damn, the electricity is out. Looks like the only thing we have is the spark between us….”

“I have a warehouse of expiring condoms…”

“This one time, on the Jalalabad road….”

Taxi driver showed girl his driving license and said, “See? It says here that I’m authorized to transport dangerous cargo. That would be you!” *wink, wink*

That makes me laugh because on my first trip to Darfur in 2004 after a couple of pretty raucous parties, someone started a list of "sure fire ways to get laid in Darfur" but rather than punny- they relied more on the context and the fact that a natural response to being around death and dying is to embrace the very act which creates life. A lot of aid workers are young - really young! Sometimes it feels more like fraternity parties than the office parties of Washington DC. Work hard, play hard is the motto and there's a reason that if you want a stable marriage, you have to leave the field.

I remember a few of the lines on the top ten list but I wish I had written them down:

"You wouldn't believe what I saw today. I"ve got a bottle of "liquor" from the African Union mission. Wanna get drunk?"
"I am scared to sleep alone after the security event - can you just hold me for a while? "

But a favorite from an impromptu dance party in Haiti in March -(while listening to Aisha, the ubiquitous song played in almost every setting I've ever been to) "DAMN, why can't I be French and in [name of my org] France and make love to this song every weekend?"

And it also reminds me of some lines used on me too... but those, well, I'll tell you those in private. ;^)

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Best of 2010 to date

Here's a few of my photos from my life in 2010 to date. I traveled to India - Delhi/Taj Mahal/Manipur/Kerala, Turkey- Istanbul and the roman ruins near Selcuk, the post-earthquake devastation of Haiti -Port-au-Prince and Carrefour, Edinburgh Scotland, a nice trip with my sister to Charleston South Carolina, and a bike ride with friends through the Tulip Fields of Holland.

This and that

Just an update on what is going on since my posts from Haiti - I removed the posts due to concerns from the place where I work - I will be looking at them again and seeing if I can repost them after editing them as I do not like the idea of being censored about writing about what I feel.

What's been going on since January 2010:
While preparing to return to India around the anniversary of my father's death, the Haiti earthquake struck. As I had worked in Haiti for a few years in the past, I was really horrified but luckily, the people I care about there were fine. I worked hard to get there to try to help with the earthquake.

Tried to relax a bit in India and went to visit Kerala - it was lovely. Traveled to Manipur, a conflict ridden area of India between Bangladesh and Myanmar. Made some new friends. Had my heart broken when one of them died.

Traveled to Haiti - very intense and media impacted conflict - funniest memory, sitting between the Scientologists and the Mexican Coast Guard in the UN cafeteria and hoping for sitings of Sean Penn and his machete and gun walking around the Petionville Golf Club like the Sheriff of an old western town.

Difficult trip back to South Carolina - my first one since my father's funeral. Good to see Alyson, friends from home, and the kitties. So sad to learn that George, my dad's cat is very sick and won't be with us much longer. Wish I would have hugged him more.

Volcano eruptions closing European airspace meant that I got to spend more time with my friend Rick who was stranded here - we went cycling in the tulip fields and had a great time

Skipped Queen's Day this year and went to Edinburgh to see the town - hiked on Arthur's Seat, ate too many oysters, drank whisky, and had a grand old time

Am taking some time off to recuperate from two very hard years - my father's sickness and death, the crappy economy that has impacted my sister, nonstop travel to some of the world's crappiest places, working on sexual violence in conflict in a not very supportive world, and spending all my time doing ANYTHING but looking after myself has taken its toll.  I'm going to be in Amsterdam for a few months trying to re-center myself.

I've been thinking of taking up some new physical activity - rowing/hiking/climbing/tango/tennis/karate/salsa.... any recommendations?

Friday, April 02, 2010

Monday, March 22, 2010

Preliminary Thoughts about Haiti

I wrote this post before I went to Haiti after the devastating earthquake there in 2010. I was very burned out and very tired and struggling with the death of my father and hating my job. I was reprimanded for it at work but I no longer work there so I'm publishing it again (for whatever that is worth).

Haiti is a tough country and the earthquake has taken an already poor country that was devastated and made it even worse. What I see in Haiti is the worst poverty I've encountered - it was true when I worked at JSI and hadn't seen much of the world and its true now that I've been to some of the worst places in the world. I went with the nurse outreach workers on Thursday to a little shack in the median of the national highway where an old woman who was naked with a broken hip from the earthquake who has lost her reasoning takes care of a little severely malnourished girl. We bought them out for the Therapeutic Feeding Centre. It was one of the worst places to live I've ever seen. The passing giant 18 wheeler trucks were constantly honking as they went by, the rush of their wind caused the bed sheets that served as her wall to fly in and dust covered their meager belongings. The heat and the noise was unbearable. The floor was muddy and the old grandmother sat on a piece of cardboard and the 2 year old girl just sat their listlessly as we tried to examine her. I've been to India, Congo, Zimbabwe, Darfur, Somali border of Ethiopia, Guatemala, Liberia, and other hotspots and I don't think I've ever seen as much misery as I see here.

Of course, life goes on for those with money as well. The markets are booming and people are selling things. In the guest house that I was in by the Caribbean in Carrefours, men paid prostitutes to have sex with them in the ocean in front of our patio and music, beer, and good times flowed on their side of the wall and if you hadn't seen the collapsed building in front of the entrance to our compound, you
wouldn't know that anything was different from 2000 when I first came here.

I had a rough night last night. I'm in one of the expat houses and in this job, I am of course, the constant new person in the room. It's exhausting always being newly introduced to people and trying to be social and not a burden on the teams. I think Haiti must be affecting me more than I realized and a couple of beers unleashed some real sadness. But it was also partially due to the expat team here- I know that we have to be able to laugh at everything and the humanitarian aid workers of the world have a dark side but some of them take this world weary attitude too far. There was one woman in particular who had a cynical opinion about everything. But there are other colleagues who are proud of our work and fight to make us different from the others and to really stand in solidarity with the people of Haiti. Like anywhere else, with large groups of people, you get a mix.

I was talking with someone about a friend who killed himself a few weeks ago over a cultural issue in his country. I was trying to point out how fucked up the situation was with the arranged marriage and everyone jumped in with their opinions and attitudes and cynical beliefs - none of them knowing what a great person he was and I just couldn't take it - especially since I also lost a close friend of the family to suicide just a few months after my father died. Sometimes, our hardened "been there seen that" attitude really pisses me off. Why are we humanitarians if not to feel like humans?

Everyone here believes that someone has the right to die -which I believe too- but my point was that I wondered if he knew how loved he was and how it would impact people who barely knew him, if he would find life worth living. we believe that the little baby and the grandmother living in the median of the highway have the right to live -even though where they live degrades their human dignity, yet we accept without blinking when a talented and loving and warm colleague kills himself. Was it not mental health issues? Or a cruel and hopeless culture and society? Why were they not as outraged as I was? Or is it just a defensive measure taken to insulate themselves from the horrors around us?

I know I'm the "delicate flower" here (as my father used to tease me) and I sometimes think this was a bad choice for a career as I seem to be unable to block out the sadness and misery sometimes.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Bullies at work

I wrote this post on March 5, 2010 about Bullies at work. I got reprimanded by my supervisor but I don't work there anymore so I've decided to publish it again.

I"m heading to Haiti on Monday. I've been wanting to go since the earthquake as I used to work there before and had many friends there (who thankfully survived the earthquake). I"m a little apprehensive about it as the level of violence and destruction is supposed to be intense. People who have been there lately have warned me that its difficult to accept. I hope that our security regulations won't keep me from seeing Gerald and Guy-Claude, friends of mine from when I worked at JSI and Refugees International.

I was also invited this week to speak at the London School of Tropical Medicine and the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine this week - I love public speaking and was excited about the opportunities to talk to the students. It is hard to stay an optimist and feel like I'm working to change the world in this current job - you'll see why in a minute. But teaching and talking to students who are still optimistic and interested in trying to make a change gives me hope and renews my own commitment to change.

This week, we were going through the mind numbingly ridiculous process of trying to reach an agreement about saying something about what is happening in Haiti between five sections of my NGO, all their attendant folk who advise the different sections, and all the people in the field in Haiti who are trying to make our operations work while also pushing this deformed enormous beast that is the organization into agreement. We simply wanted to make a statement about paying attention to health care in the Haiti reconstruction process. We've been there for over 19 years, we run some of the only hospitals in the slums, and we have been responding to the earthquake 24 hours a day as well as dealing with having staff kidnapped last week. It's high stress for the people in the field and our organizational culture in the headquarters doesn't help at all.

The way that people speak to each other and the disrespect that we have to endure as we give our opinions on the best things to focus on in this supposedly simple statement insures that nothing ever comes out of it. And indeed after a whole week of commenting on papers and heated emails and pressure - they canceled the whole thing. It's maddening. I really wonder why I bother. Nothing feels worse than to realize that everything you do is for naught and my chosen way to try to help the people of Haiti (advocacy) is not working. At least I'll be able to do some trainings on sexual violence while I'm there. But even that, doesn't always matter because we have such high staff turnover and if a manager decides that it's not really a priority in that country, then it doesn't happen.

But I really felt like shit on Friday after a week of pretty fun teaching and discussions in London and Liverpool with my colleagues in the UK who I really like and esteem a lot. it was fun traveling to Liverpool and meeting the northern UK people who were so funny and nice and real. Thursday afternoon, I was helping lead a session on using international law in advocacy, this character who has a ton of power in the organization sent me a text message and asked me to jump into the discussion immediately but respond only to him on email as soon as possible. I was trying to manage the web mail between breaks while teaching and accidentally cc'd the head of mission. I texted him immediately after to say that I had made a mistake. But I woke upon Friday morning to receive an email saying - when I fucking tell you to not cc anyone then you fucking do it. I was pretty calm about it and told him to chill out and that cursing at me was inappropriate. No response from him. He's one of the most powerful people in the organization so people accept this from him.

Then when I got to work, I went down to speak to someone else to clarify a date for a training and the guy flew off the handle at me and started shouting at me in front of everyone in the office. He's a notorious bully and has bullied a lot of his subordinates in the past. He's yelled at me before and has a hair trigger but never in front of a group of people before. Normally, I argue back with him and get him to calm down so we can resolve it immediately. I decided this time I didn't have to take it anymore so I yelled at him back and said "YOU DO NOT TALK TO ME LIKE THIS." The HR person who was sitting near him when it went down came up to my desk and asked me to file a report -which I have to say is unusual at my organization. We do not have a culture of accountability and people can make racist comments, use profanity at meetings, and generally act like sexist assholes. So I filed the complaint and cc'd the Director General. He came up to speak to me about it and assured me that he takes it seriously and will do something about it. I said I would be satisfied with an apology.

But you know where I work, its usually the person who files a complaint who gets in trouble or who is blamed for things. So who know what is going to happen. At this point I don't care. I am not going to accept to work in a hostile work environment and if I cant stand up to the bullies, how can I expect others to do it? But if I had to live with these guys afterwards? I don't know what I would do. And that's the situation for many of the people that we work with - in the field, you have to share a house and work with them with the only consolation being that you only work for about 9 months and can go home at the end.

Being able to go home and have a life outside of these stupid petty arguments and issues is the only thing that keeps me sane. I don't know how much longer I can keep doing it though. I don't want to start accepting this culture and I'm not sure I have the heart or stomach to change it.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

A few of my favorite things: A photo show

Here's a collection of some of my favorite things from photos through the years including fields of flowers, cows, farmer's markets books, tea, and hotdogs!

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Bests and Worsts

While sitting in a little bungalow in Kerala reflecting on the sad state of my recent manicure, I decided to reflect on some of the best and worst things that I've learned while traveling these past 15 years. In no particular order:

Best Manicure and Pedicure: Boston Day Spa in Addis Ababa, 2009:  My manicure lasted for almost two weeks – a lifelong record! I was served hot tea, had a massage chair, and nice ambience. Not too expensive either!

Honorable Mentions: Washington DC, 2003 - 2007: The pedicure place across the street from my house on 18th and T streets was reliable and fast and not too expensive. Downside: Constantly trying to make you feel bad and insist that you needed facial waxing.

Singapore, December 2009: In a mall somewhere with Suzie. I have never had such shiny toe nails. And they lasted almost two months.

Worst Mani/Pedi:
(Three-way Tie Amsterdam/Mexico City/Delhi)
Near Nieuwmarkt, Amsterdam, 1999:  They scrubbed my foot so hard they cut it open and I bled, and poured such hot water on my feet that they scalded me. I could barely walk afterwards.

Zona Rosa, Mexico City, Mexico, 2005: Again, the pedicurist believed that my right big toe just needed a good digging to get the nail bed to right itself (it’s never been the same since I dropped an ice bucket on it at Garibaldi’s in South Carolina). Not only did it hurt like hell and bleed, I got an infection and had to lance it with a needle and a match in Guanajuato a week later.

Defence Colony, Delhi, India, January 2010: I could still see through the nail polish after two lackluster coats of varnish and the lady painted over my cuticles. On the way home from the salon, it began to chip.

Best Journey in a foreign country: Train from Fort Cochin to Alleppy, India, January 2010.Inside: chai salesmen, sleeping business men in the bunks above me, and an ambience unchanged from the 1920s. Outside: Water buffalos and green palm trees and canals and bridges.

Drive from Port Elizabeth to Cape town, South Africa, October 2003Most spectacular sunset ever seen somewhere  between Mpmulenga and Knyssna, riding along the Garden Route, riding an ostrich for the amusement of German tourists in Outhoorn, drinking a Castle beer at Ronnie’s Sex Shoppe in the Klein Karoo, crossing the Drakenberg Mountains, coming down into Cape Town to see Table Mountain.

Riverboat ride north of Bangkok, April 2002.Trees so filled with fireflies that they seemed to glow and levitate, heavy smell of dark brown water of South East Asia, green jungle on every side.

Worst Journey in a foreign country: Car ride from Nyala to Kass, South Darfur, Sudan, October 2004We were shot at and it broke out a window. Old pimped out hoopty that we rented broke down and the Janjaweed helped us get back on the road. Lots of tales about bandits that got all the cars on either side of us but not us. Potholes. Tense and frightening. Two weeks later we heard a woman from USAID was shot at the same point we were at. She lost her eye.

Motorcycle Ride from Sigiriya to Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka, September 2005Styrofoam helmet, aching back from too many books in my backpack, scared out of my mind by the weaving and dodging traffic, screaming buses and 18 wheelers. “A supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again”

Car ride from Port-au-Prince to Gonaives, Haiti and Gonaives to Cap Haitien, Haiti: February 2005A backbreaking trip across the moonscape of a devastated land, it took four hours to go about 60 miles.  The 2nd part of the journey was over an extremely treacherous mountain pass with no guard rails, potholes and people in every treacherous hairpin turn. Afterwards, the driver informed me  about the brake problems in our car.

Best meals in foreign countries:Side of the road from Boguila to Bangui, Central African Republic, March 2007A piece of freshly caught fish grilled over a charcoal flame with hot peri peri powder and tomatoes and onions, washed down with a cold coke, eaten with fingers. It might have been made better by the fact that I was on a 10 hour land rover trip squashed in the front seat with another person and with a big barrel that reeked of oil behind me.

Beirut, Lebanon, August 2006:
Everywhere we went, we would get some sort of street food and it was ALL divine - from zataar filled croissants to labneh to zataar pizzas with fresh goats cheese on them to the Arabic and Italian ice cream parlours where we conducted our meetings. At night, we went to divine little bars and drank "Malcom Lowry's" and ate fresh Ceasar salads prepared by beautiful men while listening to the latest lounge music. All war zones should be so gorgeous.

Le Quartier Francais, Franschhoek, South Africa, October 2003: Freshly caught salmon trout grilled and served on a plank of wood accompanied by a divine South African Sauvignon Blanc by the glass in a beautiful old French Huguenot farmhouse overlooking a vineyard. Downside: My traveling companion had a stomach virus and couldn’t even eat her broth although she tried valiantly.

Califa del Leon in the Colonia Condesa neighborhood, Mexico City, Mexico, May 2006: My first Taco al Pastor - roasted pork served with cilantro and pineapple on a fresh tortilla. All you can eat until you can’t eat anymore. Washed down with a cold beer and eaten on the street corner in a beautiful neighborhood in Mexico City on my first night there.

Camel Market, Khartoum, Sudan, December 2005:Freshly slaughtered lamb purchased and then brought to Sudanese women who stir fried it over charcoal briquettes with salt and pepper -served with a leafy green like arugula, tomato salad, freshly baked bread, and peanut sauce. Washed down with lukewarm plastic bags of water while sitting on plastic garden chairs and swatting flies away in the mid day heat of Sudan. Sometimes the setting isn’t that important.

Malabar House, Fort Cochin, Kerala, India, January 2010: Seafood Uttalpillum (?) – a spicy mix of freshly caught Sea bar, tiger prawns, and squid cooked in a spicy tomato curry sauce with tapioca mashed potatoes served with sparkling water and a Kingfisher beer in the courtyard of the Malabar House next to a Sitar and tambla concert under a full moon. I sat under a mango tree next to a pool of water.

Somewhere outside of Saint Johann in Pongau, Austria, May 1998: I fell off the meat wagon and was trying to get back on. My boyfriend at the time wanted to stop at a famous place for Frankfurters dipped in mustard and grated horseradish. Even though I was a vegetarian, I couldn’t resist. It was delectable and I’ve never looked back since.

Pave d'Auge in Beauvron-en-Ange, Normandy, France, July 2009: A Michelin 1 star – foie gras,  a chilled red Sancerre, divine fish, vintage calvados, exquisite service

Castelmuzio, Tuscany, Italy, August 2009:
My first taste of pecorino cheese dipped in truffle honey served with a Vino Nobile. To die for! Eaten in a small little apartment overlooking the hills of Tuscany, an olive grove, and the abbey from an English Patient.

The Royal Thai restaurant at the Cinnamon Lake Hotel in Colombo, Sri Lanka, September 2005:Thai Seafood Green Curry with Joel. “Make it how it should be made” he answered in response to do you want it spicy. We sweated and ate and sweated and ate until we almost passed out and had to stagger back to our hotel rooms. We came back the next night for more.

Hotel La Cayenne, Les Cayes, Ha├»ti, 2001-2003 :
Poisson au gross el or Lambi Kreyol for dinner. Served with a big boiled plantain and spicy rice and beans and cold Prestige beer. Or Spaghetti with avocado and hot sauce for breakfast. Something about that hotel and the food brings back good memories.

Little restaurant near a great small Fado joint in Alfama, Lisbon, Portugal, February 2008:Grilled sardines, a bottle of vinho verde. Divine!

Worst Meals in a Foreign land:
Saclipea, Liberia, December 2004:Boiled cow head with hard rice in eaten out of a communal bowl with five Liberians and a Congolese. “That white woman can’t eat that hard rice!”

ICRC party in Nyala, Darfur, October 2004: Ate nothing but rancid “La Vache Qui Rit” cheese and sandy bread for three weeks, came to a party at the ICRC rooftop and lined up for the barbecue. My mouth was literally watering. The par-cooked goat meat that I swallowed almost without chewing was bad. I had to decide whether to make myself vomit then or hope for the best. I hoped for the best and got food poisoning. That’s when I learned about Oral Rehydration Salts thanks to my friend Mamie and the MSF clinic.

Most Monotonous Diets in foreign lands:
Everything at our hotel in Pretoria, South Africa, March 2004:
All you can eat buffet. You had to fight off hordes of German tourists to get to the food and then it was bland, over cooked, and sauced with what seemed to be paste. Terrible in its nothingness particularly compared to what I knew South Africa was capable of.

Traveling through Kinshasa, North Kivu, South Kivu and Ituri, DRC , May 2005: Almost every day we ate beef brochette, pommes frites, and a beer. By the end of three weeks, I was dying for vegetables and was pretty convinced that I had “trigger finger” from gout.

The MSF Cafeteria, Amsterdam, the Netherlands, 2007-2010:Every day you have your choice of dried out breads, processed mystery meats and cheeses packaged in plastic wrap or odd salads such as canned beans, celery, canned corn, and olives in mayonnaise or red peppers, canned black olives, fake tofu/feta, celery, and raw onions swimming in olive oil with no vinegar. Deep fried cutlets that when cut open are made of spaghetti. Soups that are either grey or brown and taste vaguely like paste or canned beef flavor. Buttermilk or milk to drink. “But it’s free!”

Worst book to read in a war zone:
David Rieff’s Bed for the Night in Darfur in 2004. Will kill any sense of hopefulness that you might have and replace it with despair.

Best Book to read in Haiti before the earthquake:
The Comedians by Graham Greene. I was reading it all night and woke up in La Cayenne hotel to open my door to the blinding bright Caribbean light. Outside was a Haitian man in mirror shades, a red speedo, with a big gun. I thought it was the tonton macoute. I closed the door and splashed water on my face. When I reopened the door, he was still there. Turns out President Aristide was coming to the hotel and he was in the advance body guard team.

2nd best book to read in Haiti before the earthquake:
The Comte de Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas – French. Rackish. Dumas was rumored to have black blood. Keeps you endlessly entertained and is long enough that you don’t have to carry another one around with you.

Best Song to enter a war zone to:
Rock the Casbah” by the Clash. I listened to this as I drove overland from Syria to Beirut during the August 2006 Israel-Hezbollah clash.

Best song to dance to in a refugee camp in Sudan:
African Queen” by 2Face Idiba  – at the Bulls eye night club in Kakuma Refugee Camp near Lokichoggio, Kenya.

Song I’ve heard on every continent that I’ve traveled to:
"Aisha" by Khaled. Sung live in a nightclub in Cairo, innumerous car radios in Beirut, on an iPod at a Save the Children party in Darfur, at the nightclub in Honduras, at a house party in Papua New Guinea, at a hotel party in Mumbai, India.

Books I didn’t like about places I’ve been to:
The Catastrophist, Kinshasa, Congo. All I remember is that the author kept describing the so called irresistible woman as having extremely thin hair. What woman wants to be described by a man who is obsessed with her as having thinning hair? Why did that even occur to the author as a way to describe the heroine? There was something in there about someone spitting in someone’s face. Everyone was annoying and I wanted everyone to die by the end of it.

The God of Small Things, Kerala, India. At this point, I don't know why I didn't like it but I recall not liking it.

 Books I did like about places I’ve been to:
Anil’s ghost in Sri Lanka
The English Patient in Tuscany, Italy
The Comedians, Haiti
The Heart of the Matter, Sierra Leone
Country of my Skull, South Africa
Berlin by Anthony Beevor, Berlin, Germany

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Eat, Pray, Love?

Have I been subconsciously impacted by Eat, pray, Love? I was making folders to organize my holiday plans in Istanbul and India when I noticed I had four holiday destination folders: Iowa, India, Istanbul, and Italy. If Elizabeth Gilbert went to Italy to eat, India to pray, and Indonesia to love - what have I got? Iowa for family, Italy to eat, India to mourn, and Istanbul to breathe? Have I got a book deal here somehow????

Monday, January 25, 2010

Mother India

I haven't enjoyed India very much on this trip. I was extremely reluctant to return for a number of reasons - some professional and some personal. It seemed like a cruel twist of fate that I should be back in India almost at the year anniversary of my father's death - again alone on holiday without anyone that I love nearby.

But some friends here have got me thinking - maybe India (or fate or karma) is trying to tell you something. Maybe I need to go away for a week alone to think about everything. I've been in such a bad place for the past year - not quite myself - alternating between manic and depressed, reckless and overly cautious, emotional and deadened.

So - if fate doesn't conspire against me, I'm going to try to go to Kerala for a few days -floating on the backwaters, getting ayurvedic massage, maybe taking a cooking course before I ead up to Manipur for a field visit. Let's see what happens. Maybe I just need to entrust myself to fate and let it all flow. Stop trying to be the master of my own destiny.

Monday, January 18, 2010


I'm in shitty dirty dusty Delhi in the same hotel as I was in a year ago when I came here to do a training. They are conducting all night construction outside my window. But somehow, I fell asleep at a reasonable hour despite the big wedding celebration going on below as well.

I was in the midst of a long and convuluted John Le Carre influenced dream about spies and red light districts and schoolyard friends. And then, like a boxer punching through a screen, a very clear and intense picture of my father. My father in his schoolyard in Iowa at the family reunion that we went to in July. I could see him exactly in his green plaid flannel shirt. Thin like he was in the last years of his life but smiling with his glasses on.

I'm now wide awake. Right before he died when I was in Udaipur alone, I awoke in the middle of the night -an odd event as I normally sleep like a log all night long. I awoke with aterrible retching feeling like i was going to vomit. I brought the bucket into my bedroom and put it next to my bed like my parents used to do for me. But then I went back to sleep. About 2 hours later, I woke up seconds before my phone rang with my sister on the other end to tell me my father had just died.

Now when I wake up like this, I"m afraid it means something else really bad is going to happen. I've been plagued with fear since the Haiti earthquake -afraid to hear more bad news. I am wishing to get there. My humanitarian emergency organization has no use for me. I want to help the people of Haiti rather than lying here in a lonely hotel room in India feeling helpless again.

Sunday, January 10, 2010


I'm over the winter weather already. I enjoyed the snow when Alyson and Calvin were here because it made staying home cozy and nice. It was the holiday season so we drank, ate cookies, cooked, watched movies nonstop, and it felt fun.

This weekend, I think I plunged into winter hibernation. After an adventuresome Friday night out (drinks, dinner, and 3D IMAX extravaganza followed by walk in the snow along the Amstel river), I think all my get up and go disappeared.

I've been watching hearty Dutch people strap on the skates and hit the canals. I've seen the snow come and go all day for two days. I've made turkey soup. I've read a book. I've watched old movies thanks to the BBC. I've played with the cat. I've napped. If I had an oven, I would have baked bread. I'm preparing myself to knit and practice my flute. I've reached the end of the internet.

It's time to make a move. I either have to take up winter weather sports, take up meditation, or hit a tropical area.