Monday, January 04, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Byblos, Lebanon

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

Martin Sisters in Petra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


1 comment:

  1. Lovely write up! 2015 was very eventful for you. Here's to an even better 2016!