Saturday, December 22, 2007

Vacation starts today

I will be on vacation for the next three weeks, so I don't know how much I will be able to write. Dad arrives tonight at 7, and then we are off for a few weeks of travel. First up is Christmas in Zambia. we are going back to the Kapani Lodge, which so spoiled us last year. Then we will spend a couple nights in Cape Maclear on Lake Malawi, and Zomba. On January 2, we are flying to Cape Town, where we will be spending three nights in the city, then a few days out in the Winelands. I'm very much looking forward to the restaurants in Cape Town. Seeing penguins would be pretty cool, too.

Jorge had an interesting week. As I've mentioned here before, the Malawi authorities seem to have it in for the poor guy. So on Thursday he got a ticket for "failure to display" our insurance information. We had the insurance info, no problem. But it was the first day of the new policy, and we hadn't gotten around to sticking the card in the window. He was in a bit of disbelief that this was even a legitimate crime, so he went to the police station near our house and asked. "Oh yeah - failure to display. That's bad," the secretary tells him. "So what's the fine?" Jorge asked. "It depends. Could be little. Could be big for azungu." You have to love the transparency and fairness of the Malawian justice system, right?

So yesterday Jorge headed back to court. He sat there for three hours, during which time the judge managed to see one case. There were two men, and one had panga-knifed the other in a fight. They were both charged with assault and made to pay a 500MK fine (about 3 dollars). Then the judge and all his staff went on a long donut break, rewarding themselves for the difficult work they had just done.

Finally, Jorge talked the judge into hearing his case. Although we worried that he would get a huge azungu fine, instead he was charged 1,000MK. Twice as much as the man who had KNIFED someone had to pay.

Having done his civic duty and complied with the law, Jorge asked for his driver's license, which had been confiscated by the arresting officer. "Sorry," he was told, "the woman with your license went home already. It's raining," as if this is all the reason in the world one would need to skive off work. "You can go pick her up, though" At this point, Jorge was, well, let's just say he was not in a good humor about the situation. He told them no, he would not give the woman a ride, and she could come to her job to give him his license. For this outrageous act of defiance, Jorge was cursed by the woman. "You Muslims! You people come to this country and think you can do whatever you want." She called down the evil curse of Nkhoma, or something like that, along with a few bible quotes for good measure. Although Jorge helpfully explained that he is in fact Roman Catholic, this did not seem to help.

Well, let's hope the curse was retroactive, and that his 5 hours in court counts as time already served. Heaven knows we don't need our usual vacation drama while my poor dad is visiting.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Fighting for their rights

The minibus drivers are on strike today. They are T.O.ed, man, let me tell you. Why? Because the government has passed a law stating that the drivers may only squeeze four people into each row, for a maximum of some 16 passengers.

Now keep in mind that the minibuses of which I speak are typically the same size as your average family minivan, only much, much older. So 16 passengers may seem reasonable. However, if you've ever been in a minibus, you'll know that the driver wants to pack as many paying customers in as possible, and 24 people in a van is not out of the ordinary. (Many of those people haven't bathed in a good while, either, since few people have piped water in their homes). leading to a rather unsafe and unhygeinic commute.

It's strange to go out on the road and see no dingy white vans careening dangerously around corners, or stopping suddenly in the middle of the road to drop off a passenger. Our staff were all late to the office this morning, as the competition for a ride is fierce. Big flat-bed trucks are taking advantage of the opportunity for some quick cash and have taken up the public transport mantle for now, so that is how most of our staff got to work today - looking slightly wind-blown and wide-eyed.

In other news, Malawi has hit the big time. It made the New York Times' list of "Places to Go in 2008." I feel so fashionable and of-the-moment. Here's the bit on Malawi:

Blame Madonna. Safarigoers tended to overlook Malawi, but that has changed since she began her effort to adopt a 1-year-old boy from this tiny African country that lies within the Great Rift Valley. Next July, the luxury lodge Pumulani ( is set to open 10 villas on spectacular Lake Malawi, home to rare cichlids and pied kingfishers.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Overdue pictures

I don't have too much to write about today. I will be off to the field next week, from Sunday to Wednesday, so I figured I ought to post something before next week.

The news in Malawi is:
We had a good storm the other day, but the rains still haven't really started. It's not too late yet, so hopefully they'll start soon and we'll have another good crop next year. Especially since the president gave away half of the strategic grain reserve to Zimbabwe a couple months ago. But that's another post, really. Anyway, the storm knocked down a bunch of branches and trees, and one of the cars in the parking lot outside my office had its windshield smashed in. Ouch.

In preparation for the rains, everyone has prepared their fields, and planted seeds. We get three distinct, seasonal landscapes here: Maize crops and grasses growing as high as your head, covering the land everywhere you loook; then the wild, overgrown, dried out season where everything is scrabbly and brown; then finally, the season we're in now, where the land is all neatly sown and ready for growing, and it looks like the country is covered in freshly vacuumed ochre-colored carpet.

Anyway, here are some overdue pictures from our trip to Zambia in November:

To get from our lodge to the park we had to drive across the Luangwa River.
Man, Jorge loves safaris. But he's so cute when he's all outdoorsy.

We stopped to help dig out another car that was stuck in the sand, only to get our car stuck as well!

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Things on cars

All throughout Africa, you'll find that cars are decorated with little slogans, religious sayings, strange bumper stickers. One of my favorites was spotted on the back of a truck heading into Blantyre on the M1:

“Even Dirty Old Men Need Loving Too.”


On the way to work today, the car in front of us bore a sticker saying, “This car protected by the blood of Jesus,” which prompted the following exchange:

Me: “Jorge, did you remember to get the blood insurance?”
Jorge: “No, I forgot.”
Me: “Well, what kind of protection do we have then? Is this car at least protected by the toenail of Jesus?”
Jorge: “No, you wouldn’t want the toenail insurance. It’s too small.”
Me: “So, the toenail of Jesus would just protect a headlight or something?”
Jorge: “That’s right. But he had a lot of blood, so that would cover the whole car.”
Me: “So we need something big. How about the intestines of Jesus?”
Jorge: “Yeah, that would work. That would scare people away.”

Friday, November 30, 2007

El Hasho

So, one of the first things we did when we got to Lilongwe was join the Hash. Many of you are probably familiar with the Hash House Harriers, a running club that has almost 2,000 chapters all over the world. Its slogan is “drinkers with a running problem.” The basic gist of the hash is that course is set by a “hare,” and the “hounds try to find the correct path. At certain spots, the trail diverges, and there will be several options of paths to take. You send out the runners, and they look for markings that show whether the path is the correct one or a dead end.

So on most Mondays at 5 o’clock, you can find a pack of white people running through the fields of Malawi, Malawians staring after them, pointing and laughing.

Jorge is known as a “front-runner,” because he’s one of the faster, fitter runners in the group. He’s also known as Don Jorge the Colombian, for other reasons. A couple times in the past, he has been asked to “hare” or lead the run. Both times, it did not go well.

The first time, he helped set the course. Jorge created the run that he would like – very few stops, and nice long stretches of uninterrupted running. People hated it. Turns out they like the stops, the slackers.

The second time, he led the runners along a course that ended up at our friend Ali’s big overland truck. The runners were treated to a ride back to the start of the course, with drinks and festivities. Until the truck ran out of gas, and they all had to run back in the dark.

So the pressure was on when we agreed to host the hash at our house last week. The day before the run, Jorge went out and marked the trail in cake flour, putting in lots of stops and tricky checkpoints.

But that night, the rain finally decided to show up. It stormed for hours. All that remained of Jorge’s carefully laid course were occasional blobs of grey, sticky flour paste.

So back he went, diligent leader that he is, and re-set the course all over again. Fortunately it did not rain again that day. The runners all found their way, I led the walk, and we all ended up happily in our parking lot drinking beer (or diet coke in my case) and socializing with friends. We even managed to order up a spectacular sunset. Success at last.

Monday, November 26, 2007

My second-favorite souvenir from Thailand

OK, you already know my favorite souvenir. But here's a picture of him/her at 18 weeks, just in case you forgot (lord, I can't believe I'm actually putting this on the web):

But the very-next-best-thing in the whole world right now are my jellies. How do I love them? Let me count the ways:

  • They are oh-so-comfy and flexible
  • They go well with all colors: black, brown, navy, pink...
  • They have sparkles
  • They look great with both pants and skirts
  • They cost a whopping 3 dollars
  • You can walk straight through puddles in them without worrying about messing them up
I don't know why we ever let jelly shoes go out of style. Those Thai people are so smart. That's why they do better on math and science tests than us silly Americans.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

...and what I'm thankful for

I guess I just sort of blew by the whole Thankgiving theme, didn't I? OK, in the spirit of the season, here goes:

I am thankful:
  • That chemo did not destroy my fertility
  • That my husband is such a stud wonderful man
  • To have had parents who taught me all I really needed to know about being a loving human being
  • That I get paid in Euros, not dollars
  • To have a U.S. passport, which is kinda useful if you want to cross borders.
  • That I did not inherit my father's horrible eyesight
  • That everyone in my family gets along
  • To have seen so much of the world already
  • For all the wonderful people who invented so many kinds of delicious cheese

Happy Thanksgiving

I had a cute post laid out yesterday, but then realized that I forgot the pictures to attach. So you will just have to wait on that, and read this boring, newsy post instead.

Our entertaining season seems to be in full swing now. Last night we had friends over for gumbo and potato salad (with real andouille sausage brought all the way from LaPlace, Louisiana. Mmmm) followed by bananas foster. The ice cream here is very weird. I guess because of the African heat, they have come up with a way to magically make ice cream that never melts. It just turns into the consistency of whipping cream when you leave it out. Very strange and suspicious. In Ghana, they had chocolate that wouldn't melt. That's just not right either.

Anyway, on Saturday we're having our big turkey day. We learned from last year and bought two turkeys this time. Because having leftovers is one of the best parts of the holiday.

Then, next Monday, we are hosting our first hash. I'll tell you all about the hash next week. Anyway, it just means more work for me!

As for me, I'm heading off to the field again tomorrow. (Thanksgiving is not a holiday here, naturally). I will be in Chikwawa (about 6 hours South and fun to say!) until Saturday, when I have to race back for the Thanksgiving preparations. It will be nice to get out of the office, though.

And baby is still doing well. Likes to kick. I am halfway through the pregnancy now, and I'll be going for an ultrasound in one hour. Maybe then we'll know if it's going to be a Tonka or a Tonkette!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Africa Hot

The worst time of the year for Jorge, back when we lived in New Orleans, was the summer. Despite the fact that he was raised in a place where the temperatures rarely dip below 80 degrees, the poor boy cannot stand the heat. He stays out of the kitchen, unless it's air conditioned.

So in New Orleans, where he worked outdoors all day, summer was misery. I would call him during the day to ask how he was doing and all he would say was "It's hot. Africa hot."

Turns out, when he actually got to Africa, he learned that it's not really so bad here - it's much hotter in New Orleans. But today, in Malawi, it's hot. New Orleans hot. I got into the car to go to the store at lunch time and the steering wheel was searing - I could only dance around on it with my fingertips. We finally got a fan in my office yesterday and I've had it blowing straight at my face all day.

It won't last though - any time now the rains will start, which usually means hot humidity for a few hours, then long breaks of cool, cloudy, wet weather.

Jorge and his mother spent the last few days in Liwonde National Park, a few hours South of Lilongwe, where they saw lots of "los bambis," as my mother-in-law calls antelope. There was one exciting moment where they were briefly charged by elephants, which Jorge said nearly made him soil himelf (of course, he didn't quite put it in those words...).

Tomorrow I will drive down South for the weekend to meet them in Zomba, where we have wrangled our connections into booking us into the U.S. ambassador's cottage. Luxury all 'round, folks, just like I like it. And nice cool mountain breezes to get me out of this heat...

Friday, November 9, 2007

Coming Clean

I have to be honest with you. I have been keeping something from my dear readers.

I picked up a little more than a tan and some pottery when I was in Thailand. I got a very special little souvenir. One that will be running my life for the next 18 years at least.

Yes, I am in the family way.

Because, "Hey," we said to ourselves, "our lives are getting a little boring. What can we do to really spice things up? How about raising a baby in sub-Saharan Africa? That sounds fun!"

Actually, we are thrilled. Yes, a little freaked out about how we will manage on a contract-based career, but I was raised in hippie-Seattle in the 70s, where what didn't kill a kid only made him stronger. Like running around the streets naked (they've got plenty of that here), playing with matches unsupervised, and chewing on lead-paint toys. If I survived all that, I'm sure this baby will do just fine. That's what malaria nets are for.

So, details, you ask? Well, I'm due in mid-April, we have no idea if it's a boy or a girl, but it's big and healthy so far, and we're hoping to have the baby in the U.S., insurance permitting. I get a generous six months of maternity leave, then we will probably return to Malawi for another year, although that's not fully decided yet.

If it's a boy, Jorge wants to name it Tonka. I said no. He nixed my suggestion of Aramis (the bookish, sensitive Musketeer, in case you're not a Dumas fan), so we are at an impasse. If you know my husband and me, you will know that coming to an agreement on anything is usually a long battle of wills, so this should really be an interesting few months.

I think my greatest success so far is keeping my mother-in-law from rubbing oil on my stomach every night. South Americans have no sense of boundaries. ;-)

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Big, bold adventurers

We are back from safari. Yes, another safari. It's like going to the zoo for us.

We took Jorge's mother off to South Luangwa National Park in Zambia for her very first African wildlife adventure. Her sentiments?

"This road is horrible! Why didn't we fly?"
"Oh, no, I can't sit in the sun, I will get sick!"
"Oy, the insects! Horrible!"
"No, no, no...the elephants...too close...!"
"Ay, Jorge, not the lions! How scary!"
"Please, I want to go home now."

Really, it wasn't so bad. I think she even liked it in the end. I am sure she will go back to Colombia and regale all her gal pals with how daring she was, and how close she got to the lions.

To be fair, safaris in South Luangwa aren't for the faint of heart. Most of the cars are open, meaning that there is no hard metal wall between you and the animals. The drivers tend to go off-road a lot, to get you even closer to the big scaries. And it's the only National Park I know of that allows game drives at night within park grounds.

On our first night, we did a terrific night drive. Within 15 minutes of darkness falling, we saw a leopard, a genet, and a female lion on the hunt, all within about 30 feet of the car. Needless to say, Dora was freaking out. Every time the car slowed down, she leaned forward to say to the driver: "Please to go home!" If we stopped alongside another car, she would chant "Go! Go!" over the drivers' conversation. So that by the time we saw our second leopard of the night, we just cruised right past it!

Not surprisingly, she passed on the night drive on the second night. Ironically, we didn't see much, and got back early that night.

Pictures to follow soon!

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

There's no Halloween in Malawi

They've never heard of it. So today, I decided to bring the celebrations to the office. We finished work an hour early and had candy, soft drinks, and a special Halloween cake I brought from the U.S. (from a mix - cheating, I know).

I explained that in the U.S. on this day, children get dressed up in costumes and go to people's houses to ask for candy. I could not say why. My colleagues asked me:
  • "What kind of costumes" - I said "Scary, or silly. The boys like the scary costumes and the girls like to be princesses."
  • "Does everyone celebrate this holiday?" - "I don't think Jehovah's Witnesses observe it."
  • "What are these things in the cake?" - "They're chocolate sprinkles. The orange ones are for pumpkins, which we make lanterns out of, and the black ones are for...bats and witches." (This got some strange looks).
  • "Do you have any more holidays we can celebrate?" - "We can have a party for Thanksgiving next month!"
  • "What do you do for Thanksgiving?" - "Um, we eat. A lot." (It was agreed that this was a holiday worth celebrating).

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Jesus and Mary

No, this is not going to be a religious post. Jesus and Mary are my friends who just got married last month. Mary has been my closest friend since college, where we lived next door to each other. She was the one who always had enough good sense to keep me from getting into the trouble I naturally gravitated toward, but still shared my goofy tendencies - like giddy enthusiasm, a love of Christmas carols, and eating an entire box of crackers for dinner.

Mary met Jesus right around when we graduated, about 8 years ago, and I gave up asking "so when are you guys getting married?" about 3 years ago. so when Jesus finally popped the question, I was so happy to get to be a part of her big day.

So here are some pictures from her beautiful wedding in September.

All the American University alums, at the rehearsal dinner

Those buttons were a pain in the neck to get done.

Mary, looking beautiful.

Francisca, Mary's old college roommate, and still a good friend of mine

Mary, on realizing that her dad, who was supposed to accompany her to the church, already left!

Me in the limo.

Hot Bridesmaid

It's blurry, but I thought this photo of Mary and her dad was sweet.

Mary and Jesus, officially hitched in the eyes of the Catholic Church

Mr. and Mrs. Reyes

Mary and me at the reception.


(That's Dora Day)

So my husband and mother-in-law made it in safe and sound yesterday. It's Dora's first time in Africa and everything seems to be pretty novel and exciting for her. I think she was surprised by how brown and dry everything is right now. That's because we're just coming to the end of the dry season.

The very end, it looks like, as it's just finished raining. Today's rain was the first I've seen since April or May. There's always an exciting feeling in the air once the rain starts. The air smells like rich earth, and there's a sense of coolness and cleansing all around you.

Besides, the rain here is pretty dramatic. It starts with a ping on the roof, then more, like the sound of those first few kernels of popcorn exploding in your microwave. Then all of a sudden, the popcorn goes crazy, all the kernels popping at once. The water is pouring down, waves of it rushing down the sides of streets, and I'm always struck by a desire to run out into it, as I would have when I was young, and stomp around in the puddles.

Except now I know better and have a healthy fear of cholera.

I needed the sudden child-like excitement today, as work is beyond stressful. It feels like I'm responsible for everything now, and it all has to be done right now. And to top it all off, yet another one of my staff has resigned to take up a higher-paying job.

I think the problem is that my project is very high profile; the staff here work throughout the country, meeting with many different organizations. They get poached off by other NGOs who assume they must be doing something very well, since they are working on this big-shot national project. The thing is, the ones that leave - well, I'm not really so sorry to see them go. None of them were the most impressive of the bunch. But the organizations that go on to hire them never call us for a reference, so I guess they'll just end up figuring that out on their own.

Oy, I'm not supposed to use this blog as a platform to gripe about work!

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Free wi-fi in Africa!

This just never happens! I have free internet access!

Nothing to write about though.

I am in Blantyre this week, the second-largest city in Malawi. I like Blantyre - it's an older city than Lilongwe, and has nice big old trees, and lots of hills. Like my hometown, Seattle. There are even plenty of pan-handlers, just like home! (The ones in Malawi are usually have horribly disfigured limbs, however).

I'm helping to lead a week-long training in nutrition. Along with the Ministry of Health, I am training 30 people from throughout the country to become national trainers in the community management of acute malnutrition, if that means anything to you.

I usually enjoy training, but this one has been exhausting. I am pretty fastidious in keeping to my schedules, but it turns out my staff, who are supposed to be expert trainers, are not. So for most of the sessions I was leading, I had prepared material according to the schedule, then invariably had an hour less time to work with, because other presenters went over time. It is incredibly stressful trying to cram an hour's worth of discussion, activities, and material into 20 minutes!

Tomorrow is the last day, and mostly I will be sitting back as the participants present their group-work. Then on Saturday I make the four-hour trip to Lilongwe, squeezed with 6 others into the back of a Land Rover. Jorge is back on Monday (hooray!) along with his mother.

I'm thinking that the arrival of my mother-in-law, who will be staying for 2 months, is going to turn this blog into one long, madcap episode of "Three's Company goes to Africa." So watch this space...

Thursday, October 11, 2007

And I thought my husband was trouble

Here's an excerpt from today's newspaper:
Woman in for Stabbing Husband

A quarrel over food shortage in a Blantyre-based family ended tragically when the wife allegedly drove a screwdriver into the husband's ribs.

Police in Blantyre say the deceased met his fate on Saturday night after returning home from a three-day drinking spree. The wife allegedly accused the man of neglecting the family.

"When he returned home at around 9 PM on Saturday, his wife bitterly complained to him that he left them to starve...because he did not leave any money to cater for them. The woman then asked the man to provide for that night's supper," said Blantyre Police spokesperson Elizabeth Divala.

She said a fight ensued between the man and his wife, and in the process he is said to have produced the screwdriver with which he allegedly threatened to stab his wife.

"Because the man was too drunk, the woman overpowered him and grabbed the screwdriver and stabbed him with it in the ribs," alleged Divala.

Funny, I have a hard time feeling sorry for the guy.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

And I'm back!

So I had two weeks of fast internet connection access, and did I put it to good use? No. Instead, I wait until I'm back on African internet to post an update. But really, I was busy:

Jorge and I flew to New York and drove to Pennsylvania for the wedding of my closest friend Mary. I got to see some old college friends, and Mary looked beautiful. It was a really lovely wedding. Long, but lovely. It was a Catholic ceremony and I felt like the only heathen protestant in the church, though. Pictures to come!

After the wedding we spent a couple days with Jorge's best friend Daniel and his girlfriend Lisa in New York. We had pizza at Grimaldi's, which is supposedly the best in New York. When we got there, there was a line halfway down the block, but they really pack them in the place, and we were seated in 40 minutes. The pizza was worth the wait. We also got to have lunch at Artisanal, one of my favorite restaurants. It was a total cheese-fest: Cheese plate, followed by cheese fondue, rounded out with a Croque Monsieur (basically a fancy grilled ham and cheese sandwich). I'm not sure I have really explained here the depth of my love for cheese, but if you've seen "Sideways," I am the cheese-head equivalent of the wine nerds in that film.

We then flew to Los Angeles, where my sister Joy and my grandparents live. The rest of my family flew in to see us for the weekend: my dad and his wife, my sister Miriam and her boyfriend, and my Aunt Alanna. It was a full reunion, and we had a great time. I also got to spend time with my boy-genius nephew. How many 2-year olds do you know whose vocabulary includes "concrete," "beard," and "combine harvester"? We got a free day at Disneyland thanks to my sister's hook-up, and made it to a Dodger's game as well.

Our last stop was New Orleans, where the main activity was eating. Lunch at Commander's Palace, obscenely large and gooey Po'boys from the Verti Marte, Colombian food, and my sister-in-law's delicious shrimp fettucini. Then dinners at Dick and Jenny's, an amazing little local place, and Clancy's, the good old boys' favorite.

Didn't get to see as much music as I'd have liked, owing to the fact that I'm now a namby-pamby old lady who likes to be in bed by 10, but we did make it to Rebirth at the Maple Leaf. It was a poignant show, because the brother of the tuba player had died only days before. The night before the show, two of the band members were actually arrested for disturbing the peace when they dared to hold a second-line parade in his honor, without a permit. The police showed up and told all the marchers and musicians to go home, and of course the mourners just kept on playing and dancing for their fallen brother. I love New Orleans.

And now I'm back in Malawi, where the heat has kicked up, and the trees are miraculously green again, despite the fact that there has been no rain since May. Even my garden is starting to grow!

Monday, September 17, 2007

Raise your glasses...

...and toast to the fact that I am now entering my 4th year in remission.

It was three years ago that I got the good news that there was no more Lymphoma in my system. That first year post-treatment was pretty scary. The second year I got nervous every time a test was due. Now, three years on, I'm starting to feel pretty confident that I kicked that whole cancer thing in the patookis. It deserved much worse, let me tell you.

Anyway, I was looking for a graph that would show how my chances of getting sick again decrease over time. Instead I found this:

Basically, what this means is that the chance that the Lymphoma will come back drops very low by the time I make it to about 7 years - but I'm already past the most common recurrence period.

The bad news is that 40% of people who get Lymphoma kick it within 25 years, usually due to secondary cancers caused by the initial cancer treatment (ironic, no?). This is why health insurance policies want 3,000 dollars a month to cover me, and why life insurance providers refuse to even give me a quote (I have tried). From their point of view, I am a ticking time bomb, ready to blow up in a blaze of medical bills and abandoned dependents.

But let's keep this all in perspective, shall we? After all, this study was done on people who got sick in the 60s. For all I know, they were injecting patients with rocket fuel back then.

For what it's worth, I feel like one of the lucky ones.

IN OTHER NEWS, tomorrow Jorge and I fly back to the U.S. for two weeks! We have a whirlwind trip planned to New York, Pennsylvania, Los Angeles, and New Orleans, where we will see numerous friends and relatives, but have too little time to actually hold a conversation with them. We'll just whizz by and yell "Hey, you look great! Love the hair! Gotta go now!"

Look at me, I have so many pretty hats to wear now!

So, I counted today.

These are all the jobs I am currently filling:
  • Program Advisor (my "real" job)
  • Program Manager (He's moving to the U.K. to study. So now I advise myself! How handy is that? Do I even need to say that I take ALL my advice?)
  • Monitoring and Evaluation Officer (she's on maternity leave)
  • Information Officer (He got laid off)
  • HIV Focal Person (I was "volunteered" for this job in addition to my regular duties)
And coming soon:
  • Project Officer (he resigned today)
So count 'em folks. I do the work of 6 people. But I only get paid as one. Are you impressed now?

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Hee hee. Busted again.

So, three hours after I posted that last post, I went home for lunch. And guess what happened?

The police stopped me again!

What, do I look like some sort of menace to society? I mean, I understand why they pull over Jorge all the time - he looks like an angry mujahedeen. But sweet little perky blue-eyed me? I tell you, it's profiling.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

They're trying to catch me riding dirty.

I got pulled over by the cops today. Again.

You see, I recently moved to a new office, and my new commute takes me right past the police station. At least once a week, a handful of police officers stand on the road outside the station and stop as many passing cars as they can. Inevitably, mine is one of them. Apparently they never remember that they only just stopped me the day before.

Usually, it's a fairly routine stop - they check the car's tags to make sure that insurance and taxes are up to date, and they check that the driver has a valid license. Today the officer decided to hassle me for driving on a U.S. license. Theoretically, if you are in Malawi longer than 3 months, you are supposed to get a Malawi license. However, Jorge went and checked up on this one day (he's buddies with the police captain now, after his many encounters with the traffic police) who said that since we travel out of the country so often, we don't really need to bother. I told this to the cop who stopped me today, which probably wasn't wise, but he let me go anyway.

But you have to feel sorry for the police here, to be honest. They are underpaid, poorly appreciated, and overworked. There are few police vehicles in the country, and they seem to be reserved for the important task of taking higher-ranking officers to the "Steers" fast-food burger place for lunch. Most of the remaining police pile into the back of a truck each morning, where they are then dropped several miles away to stop passing cars in the sun and the heat all day. They often have to find their own way home. If they do find an offender, they actually have to ask the person they are arresting to give the officers a ride to the police station!

A friend recently told me a funny story. A few months ago, the Malawi police were given a few breathalyzer testing machines, no doubt by some big international donor. My friend's friend, let's call him "Bill," got stopped one evening on the way home from a party. The police did not know how to use the breathalyzer, so Bill obligingly demonstrated - and was found to be over the legal limit. Since the police had no car, they all piled into Bill's car and made him drive, drunk of course, to the police station so he could be booked! So much for ensuring road safety.

Friday, September 7, 2007

You’re not the boss of me now

Today is my bosses last day. That makes me the boss, until his replacement starts at the beginning of November.

You might think I would be heady with the power of it all, but nah, not so much. I have been the boss before. I would say I was actually pretty good at it. But it’s not something I’m very keen to go back to. My current position is as the “Advisor”. That means I get to tell people what I think they should do, but don’t actually have to take responsibility for doing it. And if it all goes wrong, I can just say “well, that’s not how I told you to do it.”

Now my life is human resources, budgets, transport plans, proposals, hobnobbing with the government….AND all of the work I’m supposed to be doing normally (training and mentoring, writing, designing programs and activities, monitoring and evaluation of our work, managing research…)

So it’s going to be hectic to say the least. And no, it’s not going to be like “9 to 5” where they lock the boss up and institute all sorts of liberal woman-friendly workplace policies. I’m thinking “keeping my head above water” will be the theme of the next two months, not “regime change”.

Anyway, I’ll quit my grousing and instead with my boss Stanley all the best in his life ahead. He’s off to do a Master of Public Health degree at the prestigious London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (but heck, it’s no Tulane). It’s a great opportunity, and it always makes me happy to see talented African professionals moving ahead – especially when they want to use their education and skills to come back to Africa to work.

Of course, all this development means someday I’ll be redundant out here. But that will be a good thing. And I’m sure I can always find a sucker to pay me to “advise” them.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

I would have written yesterday, but I was out sick with a cold all day. I'm going back home to bed as soon as I finish this!

So it's been 2 years since Hurricane Katrina, and things are still not OK. It's funny how many people we meet here think that everything has gone back to normal. They always say "but it's fine now, right?"

Ummm, no. I haven't been in a year, but from friends and family I can report to you that all is not well in the beautiful Crescent City. It's amazing how the progress just stalled after a few months. People just ran out of money. Most people that I know that rebuilt did it with their own savings or on credit, counting on the insurance companies to come through at some point. (And we all know just how eager insurance companies are to pay up to their loyal customers). I'm going back to the U.S. on vacation in three weeks, and we were able to squeeze in a few days in New Orleans. I fully expect to see plenty of trailers in my neighborhood when I get there.

Jorge and I recently watched the Spike Lee documentary "When the Levees Broke". It was really very good - I recommend you invest the 4 hours to see it, because it touches so much on what we were all feeling after the storm: the horror at seeing the city flooded, the expectation that help would come soon, the shock on realizing that there was nothing to go home to, and then the anger at realizing it was all preventable. The only thing that was missing was the shocking reaction from much of the rest of the U.S. While most Americans were very giving and helpful (except in Florida, where we evacuated to. Punks.), I couldn't believe some of the venomous, accusatory remarks that came from a small minority who chose to blame the victims.

I'm sure none of this is news to my enlightened readers, of course. But I just wanted to remind you to keep New Orleans in your hearts this year, especially as elections loom.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Got a boogie in your butt

Does anyone even remember that old Eddie Murphy song? Anyway, this is an old story, but I asked and Jorge says it's OK to write.

When Jorge got home from Tanzania, he said “Hey baby, look at my butt. What are these?” I looked and saw that he had several red welts on his backside. We figured it was bug bites, and waited a couple days to see if they cleared up. Instead, the bumps just grew, and became painful and itchy. I urged Jorge to go to the doctor. He stubbornly refused.

A week later I went to the doctor myself for a checkup. Jorge asked me to ask about the bumps. I told him that any doctor worth his salt would need to physically examine the bumps to make a diagnosis, and that I couldn’t just waltz in to the doctor’s office and ask for medicine for an undiagnosed problem for an invisible patient. Jorge just got mad at me.

So we go off to Thailand, Jorge scratching his booty in agony at all the temples, museums, and shops. Every 30 minutes or so I would repeat: “I really think you need to see a doctor about that,” which usually sent him off on a tirade about how it was all my fault anyway. Jorge tried several painful home remedies involving poking, squeezing, and burning. One morning after a particular vigorous attempt to dislodge the little buggers, I took a look and saw that the bumps were very clearly moving. You could see a little raised line along the path they had taken.

Finally, tired of the whining, I went into a pharmacist’s and, sure that it was worms, asked what medicine we could give. Of course, she insisted on taking a look at the bumps. So there was poor little Jorgy, standing in the middle of the pharmacist’s office with 4 little Thai women bending over and looking at his butt very closely, giving an occasional prod. The pharmacist stood up and told Jorge “I think you have Herpes.”

Exasperated, we bought some Cortisone cream and went on with our trip.

When Jorge got back to Malawi he finally went to the doctor, where the diagnosis was Subcutaneous Larva Mobilus. I’m not much good at Latin, but even I can figure out what that means. Little Worms Moving Around Under Your Skin.

We like to joke what a good caretaker Jorge is. Not only did he provide his little pets with shelter and food, he even took them on vacation with him! As for the creatures, Jorge got medicine to kill them, but his butt looks pretty bad still. I think he waited too long to get treatment and they went ahead and laid eggs in his tush. So let that be a cautionary tale to all of you. When your wife tells you to go the doctor, GO. Before you go all Alien and things start bursting out of your body.

Friday, August 17, 2007

So, nearing the end of the Thailand trip posts. Unless I get around to taking photos of all the beautiful things I bought. Anyone interested in seeing those?

If you were reading while we were away, you’ll know that the Ko Samui leg of our trip did not go so smoothly. I was just told off by my brother-in-law last night for keeping all of Jorge’s friends and family on edge wondering if he had ever gotten out of Cambodia. Sorry ‘bout that.

Before I go sounding like a nasty old curmudgeon again, let me just say that we loved Thailand. It was beautiful, interesting, and fun. And the people were really lovely, no matter what I said in my spiteful loneliness.

That said, the beach was a little disappointing. I was expecting tropical paradise. Instead I got “hmm, that’s pretty.” I stayed at the Arayaburi Resort, which was probably the best choice for us, within our budget. There were only two other hotels in the area, and we pretty much had a beach all to ourselves. It was a great place for just relaxing. Most of the other beaches in Ko Samui tend to be packed, Waikiki style.

Jorge finally arrived two and a half days after me. The following day I had booked a snorkeling trip to Ko Tao, so I added him to the booking.

If Jorge had not gotten stuck in Phnom Penh, we would have stayed two nights in Ko Tao. When we went snorkeling there, we were kind of glad we hadn’t. There was very little sand beach at all, so it actually looked just like Lake Malawi, with big bouldery shores. The snorkeling was pretty sad. Too many people, and too few fish. It was a pretty disappointing day overall.

So we decided to wise up and spent the rest of our holiday there at the pool. Jorge and I love the pool. It’s like chlorine is some sort of magic potion that turns us into 10 year olds. Most of the other hotel residents just huddled at the other end, watching us nervously, as we played all of these fun pool games, and more:

  • Underwater breakdancing (my specialty is the worm)
  • Swing dancing (the Lindy Hop, naturally)
  • Surfing (Jorge swims underwater and I try to stand on his back. It's harder than it sounds)
  • Underwater streetfighting (You sink and let the other person kick you in the stomach. Then you pop right back to the surface! Fun for the kids!)
  • Wrestling
  • That move from Dirty Dancing where she runs through water and Patrick Swayze holds the chick over his head. This one did not go so well and resulted in me snorting a lot of water through my nose, then yelling "It burns! It burns! The chlorine burns!!

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Angkor Wat

I have wanted to go to Angkor Wat for many years. I think just about everyone who loves to travel wants to go there at some point. It always struck my imagination as a place of mystery and solitude. I imagined it to be a huge, crumbling temple nestled into the jungle, with monks still praying and living there. I imagined you could spend all day just wandering amongst the ruins, finding yourself in unexpected quiet little nooks, marveling at the beauty of what man and nature can create.

The reality is not quite so romantic. Instead, you go first to a drive-up ticket window, much like at Disneyland, to buy your pass. Then you go to the big parking lot. There is nothing ancient and mystical about this parking lot. It is filled with big buses, vendors’ carts, and tuk-tuks, the ubiquitous motorcycle taxis. And children trying to sell you junk you don’t need.

Then you walk up to the bridge leading to Angkor Wat, and finally get a sense of how amazing this place is. The towers, so far in the distance, loom ahead of you, and you have to cross a long bridge, over a wide, massive moat to get there. Then you enter a large gate – big enough for an elephant to pass through – and you’re inside. Normally with about 5,000 other people.

We were pretty lucky in our timing though. It turns out that most people follow a pretty standard schedule at Angkor Wat, as the large majority are on packaged tours. For example, they start the day with sunrise at Angkor Wat, then go back to their hotels for breakfast, before moving on to Angkor Thom, which was the administrative capital of the area. (Angkor Wat is actually just one of many temples in the area). So we skipped the sunrise, and spent the morning at Angkor Wat, almost completely on our own. Magical.

We hired a guide for our first day, and really took in as much as we could. The guide wasn’t too happy about it, which I thought funny. Here I was, a white-skinned, out-of-shape foreigner, and I was clambering around happily in the heat, while our guide, a Cambodian who does this 5 days a week, was sweating and tired, and kept having to take breaks to rest!

The town near Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, has grown incredible in the last 10 years, and everywhere you look there are new hotels popping up. Every night after we returned from the temples, we went for dinner then had an hour-long foot massage to prepare for the next day. The center of town has a lot of great little restaurants and, surprisingly, a pretty happening bar scene. My favorite meal was at a little French bistro, where I had a terrific Croque Monsieur, and a cheese plate with some hard-to-find cheeses imported from France.

It was hard to whittle down the photos, but here are some of my favorites:

On our first day we went straight to Angkor Wat. This is the second causeway, after you get over the moat and into the huge compound.

One of the central towers in Angkor Wat.

A photo from Bayon, my favorite temple. It has over 200 enormous, smiling carved faces which look down on you as if in benediction.

And a silly shot.

Ta Prohm, my next favorite. It has been so overrun by big fig trees that they can't be removed, as the trees are now what's holding the temple together. We went early in the morning and had the place to ourselves. We felt like discoverers and adventurers.

Jorge, the Explorer.

We climbed up to a temple that is very popular for sunsets. Unfortunately, it was crowded and hot, and the sunset was disappointing. I should learn to stick to African sunsets - there are none better.

And finally, our transport - a tuk tuk. Personally, I'd recommend hiring a car. The experience is fun for about 15 minutes, until you can't see anymore because of all the dust and petrol fumes.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Goin' away

I don't have too much to write about, because I haven't finished going through my trip photos. Angkor Wat will be up soon, though, I promise.

Over the weekend Jorge and I drove out to Salima. Our friend Bethany is leaving Malawi in about a week, and as a nice way to send her off, her roommate Ann planned a weekend getaway for Bethany and her friends - there were about 20 of us in total, and we rented out a beach house by the lake.

Going-away parties are an ever-present thing in expat life. Every couple of weeks I'm invited to a barbecue, cocktail party, dinner, or other event to say goodbye to a friend. Most of these people I will never see, or even hear from, again. A small number become life-long friends, keeping in touch by sporadic e-mail over the years.

You get used to all the coming and going, but it's always a bit sad. Because everyone has been new at some point or another, people are friendlier to new arrivals, and you make friends fast. But most of the time those friends leave just when you're really starting to get to know eachother. I live with the sad knowledge that I have had so many "almost" friends - people I would have really built a bond with had we only had more time together.

So I say goodbye to another friend, and wish her a wonderful life wherever she may end up.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Chiang Mai

OK, time now for the "What I did on my summer vacation" blog posts. Bear with me. I'm sure something ridiculously bizarre will happen in Malawi for me to post about soon.
After we spent a few days in Bangkok, we flew up to Chiang Mai in the North of Thailand. I understand that a lot of people don't like Chiang Mai, as they think it is too touristy, and prefer to go to more isolated parts of the North. I, on the other hand, always figure that millions of other tourists can't be wrong (except in the case of Spring Break in Florida), so decided we would check out what the hoopla is all about.

We had a great time. Chiang Mai is a nice, relaxed little city with a burgeoning design scene - smaller and more slow-paced than Bangkok, but with a lot of the same amenities. And great shopping.

First of all, I can't recommend our hotel, the Baan Orapin, highly enough. There are only a handful of rooms in a couple of traditional Thai houses, and each room is spacious and comfortable. The service is very friendly and helpful, and breakfasts are held in a lovely patio looking out on the pool.

We spent 4 days total in Chiang Mai. Some of the highlights were:
  • Learning to cook Thai food at the "A Lot of Thai" cooking school.

  • Riding an elephant. They sucker you into buying bananas to give to the elephants (and who's going to say no to a hungry, cranky, 2000 pound beast?), but it was more fun (and not as scary) as I expected.

  • Floating down a river on a bamboo raft. Jorge got to be the "driver" in the back. at one point we hit a boulder and poor Jorge went flying off the back, bruising the bottom of his foot.

  • Hiking through scenic rice paddies.

  • Exploring Chiang Mai's many temples. We rented a motorcycle on our last day, which was a bit wobbly and frightening at first, but turned out to be a great way to see the city.

Eating traditional, spicy, Northern-style Thai food in our own little cubby, at Huen Phen restaurant.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Back home again

We’re back from Thailand, and I’m already back at work. In retrospect, even with the little glitch of having to spend some of it alone, it was a great trip (Jorge was able to join me in Koh Samui eventually, and he had one day at the beach). We really liked Thailand and Cambodia, especially Bangkok and Chiang Mai. I will try to get photos and highlights up over the next week, so keep an eye out.

Our flight back yesterday was interesting – it’s funny how quickly things change as soon as you start heading to Africa. The difference between the Thai way of doing things and the African way was pretty drastic.

When we checked in, everything was smooth – clear signs to tell you where to go, friendly, helpful airline staff, timely departure from Bangkok.

Then we got on Ethiopian Airlines, and it was a different world.

No one, of course, was sitting in their assigned seats when we got on, and there was a lot of shuffling, complaints, and excuses until we were able to get into our rightful places. The food was mediocre at best. And then when we landed, everyone around me sneaked the airline blanket into their bags, despite a broadcasted request not to do so.

Our next flight was even worse. We waited, and waited, and waited to board the plane. Jorge finally went to ask and was told that the plane had not actually arrived at the airport yet. After two hours we at last boarded the plane. When the airline staff said that people “with babies” could board first, several families with pre-teen children boarded (mostly Europieans, actually). Then we had to wait another 45 minutes while people tried to shove their 3 or 4 carry-on bags into the overhead compartments, arguing with the flight attendants when they didn’t fit.

Then we were told that the flight course had changed – the plane didn’t have enough fuel, so needed to stop in Lusaka first. Why Ethiopian Airlines could not refuel the plane in Addis Ababa, their hub city, is a complete mystery!

In the end, we made it home 5 hours late. But overall I will remember this as one of my easier, smoother vacations!

More details to come soon.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Update on my crappy vacation

Yep, this trip, too, has joined the travel rubbish bin. And it started out so promisingly.

The Thai embassy in Cambodia says it will take 3 days for Jorge to get a new visa. This depite the fact that he has a very recent Thai visa, already having demonstrated his fitness to enter the country, and that his wife is stuck in Thailand bored to tears. The Thai have no hearts. That whole smiling-all-the-time thing is just a cover-up for the withered, bitter souls living inside them.

So pretty much this part of the trip sucks almost unequivocably. I am spending four days at a romantic beach hideaway where everyone looks at me like a freak for being by myself. "Just one?" has become the refrain of my day. "Towel, please." "Just one?" As I sit down for breakfast: "Just one?" "Can I get the shuttle into town?" "Just one?"

I went into the main part of town for the afternoon, thinking it would kill the better part of a day. I managed to fill up two hours with eating and shopping, but now have two more hours to wait until the shuttle picks me back up. I am completely at a loss for things to do. Which is why I'm here writing right now.

I did finally manage to pick up Harry Potter, so tomorrow my plan is to lounge around the pool all day reading. And I have been proactive and booked myself on a snorkelling trip for Thursday, so hopefully the time will pass quickly until Friday.

But it makes me wonder: Do other people have as many problems when they travel, and they just don't complain as much? I haven't had a snag-free holiday since my honeymoon 3 years ago. Am I just being a big baby by wanting to lock myself in my hotel room for the next 72 hours?

Monday, July 30, 2007

This is why the blog is called "Misadventures"

So, we've had a really nice time so far in Thailand and Cambodia. Easy to travel around, people are friendly, yadda yadda yadda.

So today I am on my way to Ko Samui for some beach time. You might notice the use of the singular personal pronoun there. That is because Jorge is not with me. He is still in Cambodia.

I think people think I am exaggerating when I say crappy stuff happens to me all the time. They believe I'm just being dramatic. No, I'm really not.

Who was it that said that madness was trying the same thing over and over again, but expecting a different result? And yet I continue to travel. I plan, I deliberate, I book, I arrange. And then the reality of being Gwyneth steps in.

When we were preparing for the trip, we sent Jorge's passport away to Kenya for a Thailand visa. We ordered (and paid for) a multiple entry visa so that we could stop in Cambodia. Apparently the travel agent we used messed up, or pocketed the extra cash, because what Jorge actually got was a single-entry visa, which we discovered today when the airplane refused to let him on the plane. So now Jorge is trying to get to Phnom Penh, and hoping they will do an expedited visa (naturally, Siem Reap, the place in Cambodia that gets the most foreign visitors, has no Thai consulate). Then he wil have to try to find flights to Samui. All at our expense, of course.

Funny thing is, yesterday was the first time we'd had any problems, and I was going to write a big post about it, but now this new turn of events seems to have dwarfed the little incident. We were trying to go out to the lake near Angkor Wat, and ran into a piggish little man who would not let us rent a boat unless we paid more than the ticket price. He said it was more expensive for us because we were two people, despite the fact that there is a set ticket price for the boat. When we tried to share a boat with other people, he would try to prevent us from speaking to them, and then would tell them they couldn't let us ride with them. And then there was a selfish English couple who refused to let us share the boat with them. It's a 15-seater boat, people. They made me ashamed of my heritage. We ended up turning around and going back to the hotel. May the Karma be swift and terrible upon him.

So now I'm off for my romantic beach vacation, where I will sit in my room and wait for phone calls from my husband. And the worst thing is that I planned on consoling myself with a copy of Harry Potter and the WHOLE BANGKOK AIRPORT is sold out. If there is such a thing as reincarnation I must have been a right a-hole in my last life.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

So go back to your bars, your temples, your massage parlors

Another line from "One Night in Bangkok." Sorry, can't help myself.

So we have had a packed couple of days so far, including all of the above-mentioned destinations and more. On our first night in, we didn't have much energy, so we walked to a local restaurant our hotel recommended, Chote Chitr. It was just a little hole in the wall, and when we arrived the proprietress came out and handed us the menu, then proceeded to tell us what we should order. We agreed with all her choices except one, going for a yellow curry instead of coconut soup. The other dishes were rice cakes with a coconut, sausage and shimp dipping sauce, salad made with a variety of mushrooms and chicken, and a sweet-salty crispy noodle dish. Everything was amazing. Simply the best Thai food I have ever had.

Yesterday we did the whole temple tour, starting with the Grand Palace, then Wat Pho, and finally Wat Arun. We took a long walk back through the Flower Market in chinatown, the Amulet market, and Khao San Road, the backpacker area. We stopped for a 30 minute foot massage to ease our aching feet, which was heaven.

In the evening we went downtown and ate at a restaurant called Crepes and Co. It was just a treat to eat out in a nice, sophisticated restaurant again, even though the food wasn't particularly memorable. It was different, and that was enough.

To finish off the day, we went to a nightclub. Yes, somehow I was able to stay up that late, even at the ripe old age of 30. So it was salsa night, and Jorge and I are thinking, hey we're in Asia, we can show these guys a thing or two about salsa. And then we get in there and it's like that movie with Vanessa Willians and Chayanne, with the professional salsa dancers...Anyway, imagine tiny little Thai women in miniscule outfits spinning all over the floor. And then me and Jorge in our sensible walking shoes, and a style of dancing where we hardly move (apparently in Barranquilla there's never enough room on the dance floor, so they've had to adapt.) Yeah, we felt a little out of place. But it was cool to see the nightlife here.
Today we got a late start, owing to our wild and crazy party lifestyle. Breakfasts here are great, and something to savor. We get about 8 different types of fruit each morning, along with a variety of pastries, juice, tea, and eggs. So after eating our fill, the Inn owner's son gave us tons of recommendations and helped us catch a canal ferry going into town. The ferry was neat, as we got to see the back sides of all the houses, and a bit more of the real everyday life here.

Today we went to two Thai style homes - Jim Thompson's house, which was owned by a wealthy American silk trader, and filled with beautiful Thai antiques, and the Suan Pakkard museum.

We had a late lunch at the mall. OK, sounds weird, eating at the mall, but high-concept food courts are really in here. You got a plastic card, and could go around to about 20 different restaurants, order whatever you wanted, and then they just put it on the card for you to pay when you leave. We had a pan-Asian tapas extravaganza, and it only set us back 15 dollars.

Then the big activity of the day - seeing Harry Potter and the Order of the Pheonix. which I really liked. We don't have movies in Malawi, so it was a treat. During the previews, all of a sudden everyone stod up and across the screen rolls: "Please pay your respects to the king" or something to that effect. As the national anthem played, we saw dozens of photos of the king doing various do-gooder activites. A bit surreal.

We finished off the night with a trip to the Lullaby Spa, also recommended by our hotel, which was beautiful. We both got one-hour Thai massages, and I was streched and kneaded until I felt like taffy. I can't wait to go back.

So tomorrow we're off to Chiang Mai!

Here are some more pics from the trip so far:

The Reclining Buddha, at Wat Pho. It's BIG.

Wat Arun, which we really liked.

The Suan Pakkad Museum

Orchids at the Jim Thompson House

The food court!