Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Welcome to Liberia: Creative fiction excerpt

When I was 24 years old, my mother died.  She was the strongest and toughest woman I knew and fear of her had kept me on the straight and narrow path – afraid to really live. In the past, I had rebelled against her by refusing to get an office job and becoming a bartender but her influence still controlled me. I was terrified to try the joints passed to me at parties because I was convinced that the moment I placed one to my lips, the police would burst through the door and arrest me.  I could vividly picture my mother’s disappointment and anger as she bailed me out of “Drugs Prison.” It was clear that this would lead to my bright future unraveling and a destiny as an “unwed mother” working in the Piggly Wiggly grocery store. However strong my fear, she was also the one who always fixed things.  Without her, I didn’t know how to navigate my life and I had lost my magnetic North. So in my haze of grief and untethered from her disapproval, I found myself adrift – and looking for an escape from responsibility and from suburban America.

So I followed a timeworn path followed by other mad white people from around Europe, North America, and Australia – I went to Africa to save the people. Classic White Savior trope. I was going to use my heartbreak and grief and powerful American passport to save Africa – even if I didn’t yet realize that Africa was not a country, white girls like me were a dime a dozen, and that all humanitarian aid workers fell into one of three “M”s: Mercenaries, missionaries, or misfits.

That’s how I found myself on a plane from Lagos to Monrovia in 2003 with a more experienced 27 year old aid worker named Michelle. She was showing  me the ropes and was an old hand. She casually tossed out facts to me that in retrospect were designed to terrorize me – “ there are about 5000 Nigerian and Ghanaian peacekeepers in Monrovia right now,” she told me as she casually sorted through her purse. “They are there to keep the rebels and the government forces from tearing each other’s throats out. But god knows what will happen if they are tested. They are completely outnumbered and can’t even control the airport.” I nodded and tried to pretend like I knew was happening and desperately tried to look cool.

The tiny plane bounced along over the rain clouds- rainy season in West Africa. The outline of the West African coast was our map. This was the “milk run” – we stopped and expelled passengers and picked up new ones in Conakry, Abidjan, and Freetown. The people getting on and off the plane could have been in a John Le Carre novel. Skinny bald French gangsters in plaid suits with fat gold chains, sweaty fat Nigerian business men, bored Lebanese men who smoked incessantly and tried to catch my eye. Aside from two flashy women in outrageous weaves with skin tight clothes – better suited for the disco than the dinky airport in Freetown – Michelle and I were the only two women on the plane.  I wore my aid worker uniform – khaki pants, a black tank top with a white no-iron shirt opened over it, and tevas.  But my tevas were new and my white shirt was unblemished. Michelle’s tank top was grey and stretched out and baggy- which proved she was a real aid worker who had “field clothes,” unlike me – who had purchased everything on a shopping trip to Old Navy with my sister two weeks before.

My father frets about me doing this work – do you have health insurance? Do you have a pension plan? I know he worries about the men I’ll meet – freaking out that I might show up with a Liberian child soldier turned business man and some illegitimate child. My father is proud of my daring, though. But he also worries. Mostly that I’m going to be killed in some sort of Hollywood shootout. I don’t know how to reassure him that I feel safer going into this war zone than I did in my cheap apartment in Washington DC where I heard gunshots on a daily basis and was once chased down O Street by a hooker for daring to poach her territory. I don’t know how she thought I was going to poach customers from her unless there is a group of DC men who have a secret yen to get it on with hippie girls in grateful dead skirts, ankle bells, and Birkenstocks. I wish there were – I never seemed to get dates in that uptight city of student body presidents and “the man behind the scene” types that populate that place.

Finally the plane begins its descent to Monrovia – I lean towards the window to get a glimpse of where I will be living for the next 8 months. To my disappointment, it looks just like where I left – South Carolina. Red clay, rambling green trees, and grey squat buildings. Except these buildings are mostly missing roofs, and the runway is not paved – just a slushy strip of that deep red mud. We land and the door opens up and the smell of Liberia washes in  - wood smoke, dark pungent earth, and something faintly sweet – something I can’t place.  We start to climb out down the stairs and onto the runway – not mud as I had assumed – gravely but covered in puddles of muddy red water.

My first impressions: A derelict old plane has been pushed over to the side in a field – rotting and covered with mildew. Giant white cargo planes with the black block letters of the UN are parked in front of the airport. Tanks line the runway and bored African men in uniform lean on top. Men in uniform are everywhere - and a contingent of Nigerian soldiers snap to attention and salute as the man behind us emerges. He’s in a magnificent peacock blue robe and wears extremely dark sunglasses even though it is overcast. A truck full of soldiers pulls up and the African soldiers jump out leisurely- laughing and joking and slapping each other the back, oversized helmets hanging over open handsome faces. They shout to each other and start throwing bags into the back of the truck. 

Michelle and I are insignificant specks of dust in this world of important men –swept away and overlooked as the Nigerian dignitary is greeted and fawned over. I hike my backpack over my shoulder as the thick humid Liberian air clogs my lungs and start trudging to the airport building. Just like in the movies, there are drums in the distance.


I accompanied the senior protection officer, John, to the stadium in Monrovia where thousands of displaced people live. I entered the warren of training rooms, locker rooms, and other hallways meant once for football teams and athletic demigods, and the smell was a mockery of the smell of good honest sweat and hero worship that should be there. It stunk of unwashed bodies pressed in together, of fires to cook unappetizing meals of bulgur wheat usually without even a bit of salt to enliven the taste. The building reeked of body odor, urine and shit. This is what it smells like when you press thousands of people together in one compound to help them live and protect each other just by the sheer mass of their bodies.

I walked in there, scared but also feeling rather fearless. I would not be repulsed. I would not flinch. I didn’t know what I was going to see on this, my first trip to a displacement camp, but these were human beings and they needed their human dignity restored. And I was going to do it.

Liberian society is dominated by extremely pushy men that have negotiated some power as “block leaders” or “chiefs” who you have to meet with and have long convoluted conversations with before you can get to the business at hand of trying to talk to the women and assess their needs. I was impatient but I knew I had to put on my best face, try not to be irritated, anxious, and pushy right back at them. Although I had only been in the country for a few weeks, I already knew that Liberians liked to “palaver” and formalities could take forever. As a cultural anthropologist, I knew the importance of the formalities but I hated them!

I sat smiling and writing in my notebook, listening to their grievances – there’s not enough food, you should pay us to ask us these questions… John had told me that these are common complaints. Ask any refugee or IDP anywhere in the world how things are going and they will tell you immediately – “they don’t give us enough food”. And it would be pathetic and sad if it weren’t for the old Catskills joke that immediately popped into my head. “the food – its so bad. Yes, and not enough of it.” Of course, I’m sympathetic – I struggle with my own food issues. I am not that picky about WHAT I eat but I am about how its prepared. I like spices. I like tasty foods. I wish I was a gourmet chef. But I’m not. I’m a Southerner so I travel with Tabasco sauce and instant grits so that I can always have SOMETHING I can eat if things get bad.

I look at the sacks of donated bulgur wheat with the irritating USAID logo printed on it – two white hands stretched out shaking with the phrase “a gift from the American people” printed alongside and idly watch the Liberian women cooking it over open fires inside the hallways, adding some small dried fish from the nearby market to flavor it. They are already complaining – why can’t we have rice? Don’t the Americans know that Liberians like rice? I do wonder about the bulgur wheat. Why are American farmers growing bulgur? For export to Lebanon to make innumerable tabouli salads? Has the bottom dropped out of the tabouli market?

I am sitting on a little plastic stool – the best seat in the house. The Africans really know how to treat their guests. The best food, the nicest seat, formal, treating you with importance. John is talking, explaining our mission, getting their permission. I sit smiling and nodding and waiting. I’m finally going to talk to some refugees and my real life is about to begin. I fidget and try to pay attention as the old men talk and talk. I doodle – anxious to get out of this smelly hot room and try to ignore the sweat running down my back and soaking through my underwear. I’m from the South but I can’t handle living without air conditioning. There is no air here in the inner offices of these men and it is stifling.

These Liberians have almost nothing but they hold themselves with dignity. The old men reminding you to shake hands properly, bringing out old ledger books, and carefully preserved papers that have been handed out to them by humanitarian agencies in the past. Listing their grievances carefully and formally and looking at me as if there was something I could do about it.

I’m ashamed at my impatience with them but I’m also excited.

The little kids gather around me. I’ve got a digital camera and am snapping photos and showing them their photos and they are laughing and laughing. The boys strike crazy macho poses- holding up stringy arms and popping out their nonexistent biceps. “White womaaa, White womaa – over here over here” they sing to me. The girls with their braided hair giggle and giggle and smile shyly and reach up to hold my hands. The boys fight and roll around and push against each other trying to get closer to me and my magic camera. Half-naked little babies stagger up to me, their faces smeared with snot and eyes round. They gape in horror at my ghastly pale skin and freakish red hair and begin screaming and crying. Their mothers laugh and scoop them up to reassure them. Most of the children have only one item of clothing – undies or a shirt but not both. The bloated stomachs and skinny legs of the girls make them seem like heavily pregnant women – they already act mature and maternal – scolding the little babies, bouncing them on their hips, and even carrying some of them around wrapped on their backs.

John and I walk slowly through the corridors - he’s talking on his mobile to our driver and I’m entertaining the children. Our bright blue t-shirts sort us into our tribe – we wear a uniform so the Liberians can tell us apart. Today, we’re not the only aid workers in the stadium – ICRC is unloading some supplies off a truck out front. They are incredibly organized and their Liberian staff wear small white tunics with the iconic red cross over their polo shirts. The boxes are sorted, the Liberian elders are overseeing the delivery and the only other white person in the stadium is solemnly shaking hands in the complicated handshakes that Liberians prefer.

The white man turns to watch us walk by. He’s young - a thin European man – I can tell by his haircut and by the way he wears his jeans – much thinner and tighter than an American man would ever be comfortable with. French, I think – looking at the stubble. He’s unrumpled and fresh in his blue button up shirt opened just a bit too low to be formal. He looks like he just stepped out of an air –conditioned office somehow even though the truck standing next to him is covered in dust and mud.  I feel sweaty and frizzy just looking at him. Self-consciously, I throw my chin up a bit and try to project confidence and authority. “He can tell I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, “ I think – “He thinks I’m a fraud.”

“Sebastian!” John waves towards him, tucking his phone between his shoulder and ear and pointing at me, “this is our newbie.” I smile. Sebastian nods and smiles politely. The smile doesn’t quite reach his eyes. John keeps talking into his mobile and we keep walking with our retinue of Liberian children plucking at my shirt and begging for my attention. I am aware of Sebastian’s eyes following us and I feel silly and frivolous and young.  What an arrogant Frenchman – typical cheese-eating surrender monkey. Oh great- now I’m channeling Donald Rumsfeld. What has Liberia done to me?  I hear him laughing at something one of the Liberians said and my bravado crumbles - I have the sensation that I am a small child pretending to be an adult in high heels.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Turning Point: Creative Non-Fiction

A turning point

I came to work early that day which was unusual for me.

I’m not a morning person and I am a rebel by nature.  Getting up early to go to work is anathema for me. Even, if by some chance, I wake up early, I’d much rather procrastinate, listen to music, play with my cat, stand in the shower for along time or even do chores than get out of the house and go to work early. Something about the mundane routine of waiting for the bus and schlepping in with thousands of other young women in identical uniforms consisting of sensible Anne Taylor skirts, drab colored blouses and grungy white athletic shoes over nude toned pantyhose depressed me. I had postponed this moment of adulthood for years by tending bar and peddling herbs and macrobiotic food in the Carolinas. I went off to graduate school and learned how to write about “development.” I had procrastinated for long enough and now was officially an “adult.” Despite my membership in the health-insurance owning, work-clothes wearing club, I still hated adult-ing and resisted it as much as possible, specifically by coming to work late every day.

However, today was different! I was going to Haiti for the first time ever for work. I had just reached a point in my career where constant travel was a distinct possibility – an exciting and thrilling feeling. I wasn’t thrilled with the work in the “monitoring and evaluation of health information systems” but it was a job and it was going to get me into the field! I was still figuring out what I was meant to do with my career. The only thing I was clear about in my career plan was 1. I needed to see the world and travel and 2. I wanted to help people – and by people I meant women. That was it. I wanted to do something to help women in the world. It wasn’t a clear or compelling manifesto. In fact, in Washington DC – a city filled with thousands of other women exactly like me, it was not nearly good enough. Washington may be the most competitive city in the world. It’s called “Hollywood for Ugly People” and the competition is fierce. You will never be smart enough, connected enough or powerful enough. But at least I had a job. I was an evaluation associate(a term I didn’t understand) and I had health insurance. Basically, I spent the day booking other people’s travel while I gritted my teeth in jealousy and dreamed of the day I would be demanding diva and insist on my preferred flight routes via Geneva or Paris or Morocco as part of my “contract” to another unfortunate young wretch.

But that day was different – I was anxious to get to work! I woke up in my orange bedroom decorated with Colombian blankets, Guatemalan paintings, and hand-me-down furniture in Adams-Morgan Washington, DC that I shared with a Colombian woman who worked on human rights. She was still asleep in her room so I didn’t have to wrestle for space in the bathroom mirror that morning as I performed my morning ablutions. I was particularly worried about getting my nose nice and clean which required privacy.  I had spontaneously pierced it two days before and did not want to get some sort of exotic Haitian infection that might cause  permanent disfigurement when my nose to dropped off. I put on my adult face and off I went to the grim quasi-suburb of Rosslyn, Virginia. 

As I stepped out onto my street, I realized that it was a beautiful morning – the sky was the sort of clear cerulean blue that the east coast of the USA gets on an early September morning. There was a hint of briskness in the air but the golden glow of the sun was promising a gorgeous Indian summer day which meant lunch outside in the park. The usual foot traffic of Salvadoran men walking to their construction jobs and professional African American women hustling off to work in the suburbs was lighter than normal and I even got a seat on the 42 bus which was a miracle in and of itself. I felt the self-righteous glow of being an early riser and found myself promising to turn over a new leaf and become a ‘morning person’.

The good mood didn’t even wear off during the drudgery of the bus transfer to the underground train to Rosslyn. The Virginian military officers and federal government contractors were early risers.  I joined the flow of white middle aged men with cropped hair in uniforms – either in the blues, olives, or black of the US military or the khakis and blue button down shirts of the civilian mingled with the interns and young professionals like me who were still clinging to their Grateful Dead hippie bracelets or wore bright colors. We moved slowly and determinedly into nameless office buildings filled with identical lobbies, break rooms, and grim office cubicles.

I strode the well-worn path past the fluorescent lit lunch place (where you were rumored to find bandaids in the salad) and the cheerless Ruby Tuesday’s to our anonymous office foyer and then into the dimly lit office elevator. I breezed through the empty reception area and into my office. Not even my office mate was present! I plopped myself down at my desk, booted up the computer and got to work – not even pausing for my normal morning beverage and chat in my “work husband”, Alec’s office. A few minutes later, Alec passed through the hall on his way in and did a double-take and stopped in my office in shock.  “It’s 8:15! What are you doing here?” he stammered. I self-righteously informed him that I had “COME TO WORK EARLY” and he retreated to his office to recover from the never-before-seen sight of me at work BEFORE the required hours.

He swung back into my office around 8:55am – the office halls were still surprisingly quiet and I remember thinking “so I’m not the only person who is usually late.” “Hey,” he said, “do you wanna go to the kitchen and look at the news? They put a tv in there – a plane hit the World Trade Center in New York.”

I paused to think about it… there had been a small passenger plane that had hit the White House some months before and it was not a big deal. Normally I loved an opportunity to get out of work and socialize. But today I was an adult. “No thanks,” I said… as he walked off. I was busy after all, no time for my typical lolly-gagging which characterized my morning work schedule. But I did have to go to the bathroom, so I walked past the kitchen. As I came close to it, I noticed almost every person in my office was there - some sitting in chairs around our lunch tables but most leaning against the wall. No one was talking. No one was fixing coffee or microwaving oatmeal.  Everyone was just staring at the television. Just as I turned my attention to it, there was an audible gasp through the room.

In front of my eyes, we sat as a group in stunned silence as a second plane crashed into the burning World Trade Center South Tower. This was not a novelty news story – this was not a small single pilot plane. This was a full-blown passenger plane filled with people. This plane crashed into an office tower probably identical to the one I was standing in with my office colleagues. As the building on-screen erupted in flames, someone next to me began to cry.  I knew then that my life was about to change forever.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in my heart)

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in my heart)

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
                                                      i fear
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

- e.e. cummings

Ghosts: creative non fiction

As a young aid worker, I always sought out the most dangerous current crisis and took pride in my ability to face scary places. I was always jones-ing to be the first on the plane to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Somalia, Haiti, Iraq – you name it, I wanted to go. I thought very little about the dangers in the job and was naively focused on being where the action was until one afternoon in Norway. 

In June 2011, I was sitting in Oslo in the Grand Café preparing for a job interview in the spring sunlight when I read about the attack on the Continental hotel in Afghanistan. I had just spent three lonely weeks in Kabul at that very same hotel leading a workshop for Afghan aid workers. Every morning, I rode in an armored vehicle, jumped out in front of the hotel,  and greeted the construction crew who were refurbishing the lobby  with a cheery Salaam Alekum!  I ignored the fact that the metal detector was unplugged and trusted that the UN security advisor had assured us that the Continental was the “top safety choice” for Kabul.

In Afghanistan, I had thrown myself into work because my flaky long-distance "special friend" panicked and broke up with me while I was en route to Kabul - ruining our plans for a romantic summer meet up in Oslo after my work.  I was depressed and angry but hid it by putting all my energy into work. I showed up early, worked through the lunch hours, and focused on my work and hid my pain by being very chatty and energetic with the training participants.

One of the secrets to being a humanitarian aid worker is to never think too much about what danger you might be in. It’s a plus to be blissfully ignorant because if you took the time to actually think about what might happen to you, it would be impossible to get up and do your job. Better just to get on with it and think about it later. 

Flash forward to two days after a long grim flight from Kabul to Bangkok to Berlin to Oslo where I sat drinking a glass of white wine in the Scandinavian sunshine. I suddenly realized how dangerous that job running a training workshop in a luxury “UN approved” hotel had actually been. The hotel had been the scene of a bloodbath the night before  - those construction workers were disguised Taliban fighters who had been apparently plotting my death every morning. They had sprung their attack in the evening (when I was normally relaxing with a cup of tea) and had targeted the dining area -  shooting indiscriminately into a wedding party. There were five suicide bombers who detonated themselves and fought floor to floor as terrified guests huddled in hotel rooms until the US forces managed to secure the hotel by landing helicopters on the roof and having an extended gun battle through the night. Reports suggested that it was an inside job as the hotel ‘security personnel’ ran away as soon as the gunmen arrived. 

A chill ran through my body as I read the article - I was probably one of the ones that they had excitedly planned to kill – a red headed American woman teaching about gender equality and how to provide support to a woman in a violent relationship – the very embodiment of the principles and ideals that they detested.  I felt an uncharacteristic stillness creep over me. Minutes later my mobile phone buzzed, there was a contrite message from the "special friend" saying he had been wrong and could we still meet? Shaken, I said yes – postponing for 4 months the inevitable autumnal breakup in a Swedish Ikea cafeteria.

I didn’t realize it at the time but that’s when I subconsciously decided to take a break.  For the next two years, I hung back a bit and worked in easier places - nothing near a front line.  And I retreated from the front line of dating too – easy in Bangkok where white women are invisible. I wrapped myself in a ‘security blanket’ to avoid the ghosts that were haunting me – the ghosts of romantic rejection, my own frail human mortality, and my idea of myself as an invulnerable superwoman.  

But time heals all wounds, I guess and suddenly, I found myself bored and accepting a job in Jordan to work with the Syrian refugee crisis - a new country and I felt excited as my plane touched down in the desert turned green and lush from the winter rains. Time to confront those ghosts and to open up my heart again.

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

2017 in photos (with cheesy epic music)

Here was my crazy 50th year - 2017 in photos.

Countries traveled to in 2017: Oman, Lebanon, Switzerland, Germany, UK, Turkey, France, Bosnia, Italy, Russia, Mongolia, China, Hong Kong, Thailand, Myanmar, Greece, Iceland

2017: From Asia to Europe and Back Again (with a lot of stops in between)

Happy New Year and Greetings from Berlin, Germany! 2017 was the year that I decided to leave Asia. This decision had been a while in the making – while my apartment was in Bangkok, I spent most of 2015 in the Middle East and most of 2016 in Europe (Serbia, Bosnia, and traveling in Greece, Middle Europe and Portugal). I finally bit the bullet and closed down my apartment in Bangkok and moved to Europe.

I knew at the end of 2016 that I was definitely going to leave Bangkok but I still wasn’t sure to where. Motivated by an inability to stand the 100% humidity and heat and awful sexpats of Thailand (along with an uncertain status as I was on a tourist visa), I wanted to take advantage of my British citizenship and EU passport before the powers that be finally pull the United Kingdom out of Europe. The allure of cheap Thai massage, jasmine flowers, and spectacular Thai food were not enough to hold me in Asia anymore and I had vague thoughts of “putting down roots” somewhere where gender equality and mild summers might exist. As a freelance consultant, I often work from home or travel for my work so I’m fairly free about where I can be based.  I came up with a plan to check out the cities that most appealed to me and to spend 3 months in each one until I decided where “home” would be.  I had also been in a bit of a depression and deep funk in 2016 with the awful double whammy of Brexit and the Trump election[1]. I started to heal a bit when I was asked to speak at the anti-inauguration in January with the Democrats Abroad in Bangkok where I spoke from my heart about the terrors that the Trump administration was going to bring to women – both in the USA and around the world. I took the next step in healing by returning to Beirut, Lebanon (via Oman). Beirut is a beautiful and exciting city where my friend Lina invited me to teach a class on Gender and Emergencies at the Lebanese-American University for her Institute of Women’s Studies in the Arab World[2]. It was very healing to be teaching energetic young students in Beirut as that was where I was when the dreaded Trump election happened. I also got to enjoy all the delicious Lebanese and Armenian food that Beirut offers and hang out with my friend Tom who kindly let me stay with him.

In March, after a short sojourn in Geneva for work, I headed to Berlin where I had rented a small (VERY SMALL) apartment in a neighborhood called Prenzlauer-Berg. Imagine my surprise and shock to find it did not come with internet! Although spring in Berlin is beautiful and I loved being outside, I am a free-lance consultant so need internet at home (plus as those of you who follow me know, I’m a social media junkie). While looking for a new temporary apartment, I unexpectedly landed a lovely apartment in Kreuzberg and he gave me a lease til March 15, 2018 so voila – decision made (at least for 2017). I hope to stay in Berlin but the housing market is very difficult so maybe the other cities may become options (Athens, Lisbon, and Paris if you are curious).

After a great spring and summer in Berlin (with travels to the UK to see Sarah marry Brett in Stonehenge, in Tuscany to see Maria marry Philippe, visiting Toni, Joeri, and Enzo to meet Yara in Bosnia, work trips with Kristine to Turkey, and amazing days in my friend Christine’s flat in Paris), I picked up my trusty bike from Amsterdam and spent it cycling around the parks and canal in Berlin having late night picnics. I also signed up for some writing classes and finally started writing (a long time dream)[3]. I’m really enjoying the move a lot. Being in a country with seasons again is fantastic and I love the culture and vibe of the city. If only I could get a permanent apartment!

2017 was also the year I turned 50. I can hardly believe it myself. How can I be 50 when I still feel 17 inside? Half a century of living deserves a big celebration so my dear friend Adrienne Cox, who I met when I worked in North Carolina after the death of my mother, flew out to join me on my adventure. After a fun night in the biergartens of Berlin, we flew off to Moscow where I fulfilled a dream of seeing Russia for the first time. We joined up with my friend Svetlana and her husband, Luca, and 4 others (Eva, Lora, Jason, and Connie) and jumped onto the Trans Siberian Railway where we spent a week traveling to and exploring Yekaterinaburg (where the Romanovs were murdered) and Irkutsk (on Lake Baikal in Siberia). So much vodka, caviar, Crimean Champagne, pelmenis, and “Trans Siberian bloody marys” were consumed.

Sarah and Svetlana’s
Trans-Siberian Bloody Mary recipe
Train generic tomato juice
Pickle juice from the delicious Russian pickles we bought at every stop
Sarah’s Tabasco sauce
Svetlana’s “spicy bear” sauce

Pour into train proof – adult sippy cup and consume at all hours of the day.

After a week on the train in Russia, Adrienne, I carried on with two girls (Lora and Eva) on the Trans-Mongolian Express and headed to the capital of Ulan Bataar. We went down a step from our first class Russia travel and ended up 4 in a compartment with a Dutch couple who had very particular ideas about how the train compartment should be organized. Henk and Marlena lightened up though when we brought out our bottle of vodka and soon we were all friends. The Russian-Mongolian border was an experience as we had 8 hours to cross so killed the time by traipsing around through the small Russian town on the border and making friends with the local drunks who liked to hang out by the train station. Eva lead a yoga session on the tracks as well.

Mongolia was spectacular – after one day checking out all the Genghis Khan monuments and listening to some spectacular throat singing[4], Lora and I headed out to the countryside to stay with a nomadic Kazakh family in their traditional ger (known as a yurt in Europe). It was freezing cold by the time we got there and we rode some Mongolian ponies, had a lovely meal with the family, and gazed at the spectacular Milky Way in the clear non light polluted sky.  After playing an incomprehensible game with some sheep ankle bones with the kids, there was some miscommunication and Lora and I found ourselves sleeping in the yurt without about 15-20 people. It wasn’t very restful but the next day we drank some mare’s fermented milk and drove out to see some of the Gobi desert and to ride a Mongolian camel. We were just coming in from our camel ride when who did I spot in the distance? Our train buddy Eva and her brother! We had a nice reunion with some Genghis Khan vodka by the campfire for the night. The next day, on the way back to Ulan Bataar – we stopped into a national park where they are reintroducing the wild horses (precursor to our domestic horses) and I got to sit in the wild and watch a herd of them enjoy the sun with no fences or cages to be seen. Truly a highlight of the year. (you can see more about them in a movie that Julia Roberts produced called: Wild Horses of Mongolia[5]). Mongolia is a spectacularly beautiful and wild place – one of the most special countries I have ever been to. I highly recommend that if you get the chance, you should go there. It has a spirit that is hard to put into words.

Lora and I bid adieu to Eva and got back onto the train where we completed the Trans Mongolian and headed to Beijing, China. We lucked out with some great train mates – Barbara and Leo – two Italian punk rockers and we introduced them to the custom of drinking vodka in the morning. All was going well until a horrific few hours at the Mongolian-Chinese border where they locked up the toilets, turned off the running water and the air conditioning and electricity, leaving us to vegetate and stew in our hot compartments where I somehow managed to spill KimChi instant ramen sauce all over Leo’s pillow on his bunk. Finally, we were able to enter China and use the toilet! It was a world apart from Russia or Mongolia and not at all what I expected  - clean public toilets in the train station, muzak wafting from the fake neon trees on the train platform, and uniformed Chinese guards to escort us around. We rolled into Beijing the next morning to rain and a cold front but after a nap, we lucked out for the rest of the trip as somehow we had clear weather and clear sunny skies without a hint of pollution. Lora and I visited the Forbidden City (a bit dull), ate and drank our way through the hutongs/back allies of Beijing (with amazing food like donkey burgers and jianbing[6], Beijing Duck with my friend Lars from Bangkok) and met up with Barbara and Leo to see Beijing’s craft beer scene. Lora encouraged me to be brave and hike up the very very high and very steep Great Wall of China (instead of emulating the Chinese and taking the cable car) and then I headed off to Shanghai alone on the train (this time business class!). I fell in love with Shanghai – a perfect mix of old and new. It was again, very different than what I expected – crowded but not oppressive. The Chinese are amazing hosts- kind to strangers and their food is spectacular. A highlight was a food tour I took through the French concession where I sampled snake, hand-pulled noodles, so many different dumplings, roasted lamb – and ended the evening drinking martinis in a beautiful 1920’s style bar listening to the “Old Man Band” of jazz musicians over the age of 80 play old jazz standards. I also learned about the 30,000 Jewish refugees who fled World War II and were sheltered by the Chinese in Shanghai. Very moving to go to the old synagogue and learn about Dr. Jakob Rosenfeld[7] who was grateful to the Chinese and ended up serving as a doctor with Chairman Mao in the Chinese Revolution.

I got back on the train again to old Canton (Guangzho) where I got to meet up with my friends Karen and Phillip who hosted me and showed me around this lovely city in a monsoon, treated me to dim sum, and giggles with their kids. Finally, I jumped on my last train and headed to Shenzhen where I unfortunately missed Nolan, my friend from Goatfeather’s in SC, but rested my bones before hopping the border to Hong Kong, getting on a plane to Bangkok, and packing up my apartment and saying goodbye to dear friends in Thailand. Phew!

I lived in Thailand from February 2011 in the same apartment so I had a very close relationship with Khun Nee – my housekeeper who looked after me and my cat, Simon Le Bon. She nursed me through my kidney operation in 2011, minded Simon through all my travels, and cried and hugged me when he died and I brought home his ashes. I will miss her – not just her immaculate housekeeping but her warm and caring nature and all the sweet things she gave me and did for me (she often brought me doilies, little animal figurines, pomelos, buddhas as well as ironing my sheets and keeping my houseguests in line). She is an amazing kind devout woman and treated me well. I’ll also miss my motosai guys – the four men who provide motorcycle taxi service in front of Sethiwan Residence. They always gave me free rides, cheered me up, and once even warned me to stay inside during the Yellow Shirt protests on a night that got violent. Wanchai, my favorite of them all, took me to the airport on my last day and gave me a lovely Buddhist amulet to protect me in Europe. While I was, sometimes, very lonely in Bangkok - the relationships I had with these lovely Thai people will ensure that Thailand is always in my heart. I’ll also miss my great expat neighbors, Kathy, Andrea, Richard, Jordan, and Rebecca, from Sethiwan Residence. When we were all living there together, it was as close as I ever came to my dream of making all my friends live in the same building a la Seinfeld. My other dear memory will always be the Ottolenghi Cooking Club where I joined Vanessa, Ramya, Momo, Andrea, Kathy, and others to cook for each other from Yotam Ottolenghi’s cookbooks[8] and post instagrams hoping to lure him to Thailand. I had the chance to meet him in Berlin where I babbled about our devotion to him so keep the hope alive Momo and Vanessa! It might happen! We will continue our cooking adventures via our facebook page but it won’t be the same without the food in front of us.

So after almost two months traveling again in Asia, I flew to Berlin (via Qatar!) but for less than 12 hours before I turned around and tried to fly to Brazil (tried because in my fatigue I lost and then recovered my passport forcing me to stay grounded for 24 hours). I presented a few papers I wrote at the biannual Sexual Violence Research Initiative conference in Rio and got to explore that fantastic city of contrasts. From lying on the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema to the amazing street art and music, Brazil has it all. I loved it.

I then finally returned to Europe to spend the rest of the year here. Well – sort of – I did a rapid trip with my friend Devanna to Iceland to make sure I could handle winter! So much for putting down roots! But autumn and winter in Germany are also lovely. From bicycle rides through the golden leaves of the parks of Berlin to the cozy glüwein fueled winter markets, Berlin has something for every season. Alyson came to join me in December for a holiday and we headed to the Christmas markets and the sites of Berlin before ending the year in rural Wales with my friend Sandrine.

Even though 2017 saw the world being terrorized by ISIS, a never ending war in Syria and Afghanistan, the expulsion of the Rohingya from Myanmar (and the death of our love for Aung Sang Suu Kyi), the cheeto faced maniac who is currently serving as president of the United States and the incompetency of the Tories negotiating Brexit, it was, for me,  a very positive and fulfilling year, both professionally and personally. I accomplished some great work (publishing a chapter of a book with my friend Devanna[9], putting out two publications with my work with UNFPA for the Whole of Syria response[10] and Women’s Refugee Commission in Lebanon[11], co-authoring a paper with some amazing feminists and presenting in Brazil[12], and working with UNICEF in Greece and Italy) and I made some great new friends (you know who you are). And I moved to Europe. While I miss my little furry friend Simon Le Bon, in 2017 I move forward hopefully into 2018 ready for new adventures, houseguests, and fun!  Please stay in touch and let me know if you are coming through Germany! I’d love to host you!

Much love,


[1] For some of my immediate reaction to the Trump election, see my blog at: http://screamsfromthepinkcollarghetto.blogspot.de/2016/11/cooking-to-heal-your-broken-political.html
[2] Check out Lina’s amazing work at http://iwsaw.lau.edu.lb/
[3] Excerpts can be found on my blog: http://screamsfromthepinkcollarghetto.blogspot.com

[4] Check it out for yourself here! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1rmo3fKeveo
[5] Wild Horses of Mongolia with Julia Roberts at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3RzVQ988LDQ
[7] For more on the refugees of Shanghai, see http://www.china.org.cn/video/2015-12/12/content_37300684.htm
[8] Ottolenghi has several amazing cookbooks but my favorites are Plenty and Jerusalem. An amazing mix of mostly vegetarian Mediterranean food – run and get yours now! https://www.ottolenghi.co.uk/
[9] Sarah Martin and Devanna de la Puente, Forthcoming 2018, Mind the Gap: Challenges and Opportunities for implementing the Relief and Recovery pillar of UN Security Resolution 1325. in S.E.Davies and J. True (Eds). Oxford Handbook of Women, Peace and Security (New York: Oxford University Press). http://www.monashgps.org/single-post/2016/06/10/Oxford-Handbook-on-Women-Peace-and-Security
[12] Cofem: Feminist Perspectives on addressing violence against women and girls, 2017, Eclipsed: When a broad protection agenda obscures the needs of women and girls. http://raisingvoices.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Paper-5-COFEM.final_.sept2017.pdf