Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Obama for Prez!

I just like the guy. Here's an excerpt from today's New York Times:

With Senator Barack Obama, Democrat of Illinois and a presidential candidate, expected to speak at the hearing of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee, dozens of residents lined up outside the Louisiana Supreme Court building hoping to be admitted. But only a small fraction were allowed inside, where Mr. Obama jousted with Donald E. Powell, the federal coordinator of Gulf Coast rebuilding, about where the money was, and why more of it was not in Louisiana.

Mr. Obama and Senator
Mary L. Landrieu, Democrat of Louisiana, focused on why Louisiana, which had far more damage than Mississippi, did not receive a larger proportion of federal aid. Mr. Powell said Congress had put a cap on how much aid money any one state could get.

But I still have to see about the rest of the race. I'm intrigued by Gov. Richardson, who served as an ambassador under Clinton and who recently held talks with Sudan's President Bashir about the Darfur stalemate.

Monday, January 29, 2007

I hate cars

In my lifetime, I have only owned 2 cars, for a total of about 20 months. I even lived in L.A. for a year and a half without a car. Generally I walked or took the bus, or I have lived in cities with decent subway systems (DC, Berlin, London). I think it has saved me a lot of money over the long term.

I hate having to do anything dealing with cars. Both of the cars I owned were actually bought by my husband, who handled all the paperwork and dealings with the sellers. Just thinking about that sort of thing makes me feel like I'm getting an ulcer. So I explained to him a long time ago that anything having to do with cars is his area.

Only now he's in the U.S. and I'm stuck with a crappy car that keeps having problems.

It all started on the trip back from Zambia, where we hit a few bumps hard, and dislodged the battery. The piece of metal that holds the battery in heated up and melted the casing on some of the wires.

Our mechanic at the office fixed the wiring, but said there was something wrong with the starter. He re-wired the car so that it bypassed the starter until he can find us a new one.

It never really worked well - it takes a few tries to start the car, and it makes the most horrible noise. And now there's something wrong with the fuel injection, I think, because the car stalls when it's in idle. I had the mechanic look at it again, and he agreed that there was a problem with the fuel whatever. And he fixed it in a couple hours on Friday. I was elated. I was relaxed for the first time in ages.

Until I tried to start the car this morning. And it's worse now.

I wish I could just scrap it and walk everywhere, but Lilongwe is too spread out. I hate cars so much. I hate mechanics even more. I wish Jorge was here to deal with it.

Friday, January 26, 2007


Yesterday was a very difficult anniversary for me. I have started a post on the topic a few times, but always find that there is no way for me to write a short post about the complicated events of a year ago. There is just too much to tell, and too many difficult emotions that I don't like to face.

So I decided to post this obituary, which was written by a friend, and which appeared in the Nutrition Field Exchange, a magazine for aid workers. It is a memorial to a kind young woman whose life, like many of those lost in the crisis in Darfur, was ended much too soon. I knew her and her colleagues only a very short while, but their warmth, generosity, and ability to endure such a difficult time so gracefully left such a mark on me.

Hadja Ahmed Mohamed Medini

Hadja Ahmed worked on GOAL’s emergency/nutrition team in Golo, Jebel Marra, part of Sudan’s conflict-ridden Darfur region. On January 25 2006, Hadja was killed when a UN helicopter evacuating aid workers from Jebel Marra crashed. Earlier that week, Golo was attacked by the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), seeking to dislodge the government forces garrisoned in the town.

All aid agencies had to withdraw from Golo and GOAL has indefinitely suspended operations in the Jebel Marra region. GOAL continues to work from El-Fasher and in the Kutum area of north Darfur, running 9 clinics and supplying water-sanitation and supplementary feeding to IDP camps in the vicinity of Kutum town. Golo and the Jebel Marra has been a flashpoint area throughout Darfur’s conflict. Lush, fertile mountain terrain mark the area out from much of Darfur, which is arid/semi-arid.

Hadja was married with one nine year old son and was from Jebel Mara. She joined GOAL in 2004, working on a 6-month contract initially, and by June 2005 was hired as a full-time member of the nutrition team. Vivienne Alex is GOAL’s Field Nutrition Manager in Sudan and knew Hadja well. She met Hadja’s brother in Khartoum on February 22. She said that “they are still very sad. It is a great loss to the family. There were just 2 daughters – and Hadja is gone now.” She described her deceased colleague as “responsible, motivated, willing to learn about nutrition, and dedicated to helping her neighbours, friends in Jebel Marra and Darfur.”

GOAL ran supplementary feeding programmes in 9 sites in Jebel Marra, working at various camps for internally-displaced people (IDPs). Hadja was at the forefront of this activity. Alex described how Hadja was meticulous in her approach to peer education – teaching mothers with children under 5 as well as pregnant and lactating mothers how best to nourish their children in IDP camp conditions. GOAL again takes this opportunity to offer our condolences to Hadja’s husband, son and wider family. Her loss has been felt deeply and she will be sorely missed.

I put Hadja on the helicopter that day. After three days of waiting, and only one helicopter arriving to ferry out 42 staff, we didn't know if another helicopter would come, and I wanted the young mothers to be the first out, before the fighting came to where we were. I was supposed to be on the helicopter as well, but instead was told to stay on the ground to oversee the rest of the evacuation.

I am very grateful for the friendship of the one other international staff member who was there with me. He contacted me yesterday for the first time in a year, and it was good to know that I am not the only one still affected by my memories of Darfur, although it saddens me to think of Hadja's family and the others still in Sudan, with the aid agencies pulling out and no support left to turn to.

That's all I can really say on this. Another day I will write more.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

On my own again

Jorge left for the U.S. today, which means I'm back to being a lonely, husband-less wretch again.
Here's a depressing bit of math I did today:
Jorge and I have been married for 2 years and 3 months. Out of that, we have spent a full 12 months apart. When he gets back, we will have spent 48.3% of our married lives in different places.

How did I spend all that time, you ask?

1 month - visiting my family in Seattle
1 month - staying with my sister in LA after Hurricane Katrina
3.5 months - Consultancy in Ghana
5 months - Working in Sudan
1.5 months - Working in Malawi before Jorge arrived

Oddly, though, it kind of works for us. I mean, it sucks being apart, but we handle it better than most other couples would. I think it's because we always knew it would be this way. When Jorge and I met, I was studying for a Master's in International Public Health. I made it very clear right from the start that my work would require me to travel a lot, and Jorge accepted that, even if he didn't like it.

I am very lucky that he has been so supportive of my ambitions. But, if I'm perfectly honest, his willingness to put up with my career is one of the reasons I married him.

For a long time, I simply couldn't even imagine being married. I just wasn't one to get into serious relationships. I remember a moment of enlightenment when I was in college in DC. I was sweeping out my closet, and into my head suddenly popped the idea "You know Gwyneth, you might never get married." And my reaction was so bland - I cocked my head, thought about it for a second, and then, with a careless shrug, went back to my cleaning.

So it was such a surprise to find someone I could have so much fun with, talk to so easily, and who didn't expect me to drop everything for him. Marriage was a no-brainer.

This line of work is tough on marriage, though, and it's frightening. I heard once that the Foreign Service has one of the highest rates of divorce among professions in the U.S. You have to work at communicating, and you have to be very clear with your frustrations and expectations. Would I give up my career if Jorge asked me to? Probably not. But I would move back home to the U.S. if the traveling was too much of a strain.

Fortunately we're having such a good time overseas, it hopefully won't ever come to that. In the meantime, I'll try to enjoy the time on my own and put it to good use finishing up the house and getting back into exercising.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Christmas Day

We woke up early on Christmas morning this year, but not to open presents. Instead we had a 6AM game drive to get ready for.

For our safari, we joined up with another couple who had driven over from Lilongwe, and we piled into an open-top landrover. There aren't as many restrictions in South Luangwa as there are in many of the busier game parks. This means that the drivers can pretty much go where they want to, and get as close to the animals as they'd like. In some cases, this made me rather uncomfortable. While I love safaris, I like being enclosed in the safety of very strong metal cars. Animals frighten me. Especially lions and elephants.

Now, you may think I'm a bit silly for being afraid of elephants, but there's a history to it. In Tanzania, we were once charged by a herd of huge, angry matriarchs. I remember being in the back of the truck, looking back at the elephants gaining on us, and yelling "Go faster! They're catching up!". It was just like that moment in Jurassic Park when the Tyrannosaurus Rex chased the car and they found out just how fast big land mammals can actually move.

And then about 2 months go, there was an article in the New York Times magazine about the increase of Elephant-on-human aggression. Apparently elephants have fragile psyche just like us humans, and the trauma of seeing their families shot down by poachers or culled by wildlife officials has turned some of them into killing machines. Almost every day, there is a recorded instance of elephant-human aggression. There's even an official acronym: HEC - Human-Elephant Conflict. Here's a very disturbing passage from the article:

Still, it is not only the increasing number of these incidents that is causing alarm but also the singular perversity -- for want of a less anthropocentric term -- of recent elephant aggression. Since the early 1990's, for example, young male elephants in Pilanesberg National Park and the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve in South Africa have been raping and killing rhinoceroses; this abnormal behavior, according to a 2001 study in the journal Pachyderm, has been reported in "a number of reserves" in the region. In July of last year, officials in Pilanesberg shot three young male elephants who were responsible for the killings of 63 rhinos, as well as attacks on people in safari vehicles. In Addo Elephant National Park, also in South Africa, up to 90 percent of male elephant deaths are now attributable to other male elephants, compared with a rate of 6 percent in more stable elephant communities.

So, when our driver decided it was a good idea to drive right in between elephants and their intended destinations, I was understandably a bit nervous, especially with no car wall protecting me from the sharper-than-you-realize tusks.

It was mostly a quiet game drive. Although I scanned thousands of trees for a listlessly drooping leopard tail, we saw no big predators all morning. As a nice break, we stopped in a large meadow, under a tree, for cookies and tea, while Jorge wandered bit too far off for my comfort.

Just when we thought we heading back for lunch, our guide passed another vehicle who seemed to have inside information. We drove for about 20 more minutes, through gullies and across fields, then finally pulled up aside a bush, under which two male lions were sleeping.

Back at the lodge, we were surprised to receive gifts at our lunch! The lodge gave us all a kilo of coffee and a local jam. It was an unexpected treat. We then opened our family Christmas presents. I got a lot of great stuff (Thanks, family). Then we spent the afternoon at the pool. Ah, what a rough life.

On our evening game drive we saw another lion, this one a female. She walked so close to the car that Jorge could have easily extended his arm and stroked its fur as she passed. All our hearts stood still for a moment. In the photo, you can see Jorge's arm, but he was too fightened to take a picture, for fear the sound of the shutter would aggravate the lion.

Dinner was another elaborate affair. We had turkey, steak, and roast chicken, and chocolate truffles for dessert. We all sat at one long table and popped our Christmas crackers, drank lots of wine, and told stories of our adventures during the day. All of the other guests were also residents of Africa, from Zambia or Malawi, so we had much in common.

All in all, it was a terrific trip, and I highly recommend Luangwa Park if you're in the mood for a safari. The next morning we went on another game drive and practically hd the park to ourselves. After brunch, we hit the road to get home. Apart from a freak accident involving a suicidal chicken, the drive back went fine. (My sister was the one who killed the chicken. I was an accessory to henicide.)

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Safari Time

I love safaris. I've been hooked ever since my first one in Zimbabwe, 6 years ago. I was on a horse, and off in the distance saw a giraffe. I nearly fell off the horse trying to take pictures. 4 weeks later I was on a walking safari in Tanzania, and a giraffe walked past me so close I could touch it; I barely batted an eyelash.

Still, it's always thrilling to be that close to animals in their natural habitat.

On Christmas Eve this year, Miriam, Jorge and I loaded up our little Mitsubishi, and took the road to Zambia. We arrived at the border in one hour, and spent an hour there doing all the paperwork required to take our car across the border.

We had been warned that the roads in Zambia were really bad, so I expected to go about 40KM an hour once we got in the country. To my surprise, we were able to drive for about 90 minutes on pretty good surfaced roads. We smugly thought "those pansies - I'll tell them what a really bad road is."

Then we hit the really bad road. Ohhhhh. I get it now.

This particular stretch of road was only about 40 miles, but it felt so much longer. It was deeply potholed, and we had to nearly drive up the embankment to get around the puddles and ruts. But finally we made it through, feeling extremely guilty for what we'd just put our car through.

When we arrived at Kapani Lodge, though, we knew we'd unwind pretty quickly. We were met by a lovely English woman bearing lime cordials, and were escorted to our beautiful, luxurious chalets. I was in heaven right away.

Just a note, so you know where I'm coming from. I may travel all over the world, to strange places with very large insects, but I do not like the rustic backpacker life. I live it half the time. So when I get a holiday, I want comfort and luxury. Deprivation does not equal adventure.

I was really excited for Jorge, though. I remembered my excitement on seeing my first African wildlife, andI couldn't wait to see his face when he glimpsed his. And I didn't have to wait long. In the meadow that our chalet overlooked were a trio of male elephant bulls grazing in the long grass. And in the trees all around were vervet monkeys (or were they blues? I'm no good at telling).

The lodge had saved lunch for us, and we sat on a big deck overlooking the river and the meadow, and had a great meal of salads, quiche, and fresh-baked bread.

In the evening we had our first game drive. Many tourists stayaway during the rainy season, so, in a wise PR move, the lodges have started calling it the "green season." And they are right to encourage people to come - we saw many, many animals right away, and very close to the car: elephants, impala, puku antelope, zebra, waterbuck, and baboons.

It was a short drive though. We had been out for about an hour and a half when we started heading to the exit. I thought it a bit strange to have such a short trip, but I thought perhaps the park closes at sunset. As we drove across the bridge that marks the entrance to South Luangwa, I saw people setting up tables with wine and hors d'oeuvres. I said to Jorge, "I wish we could crash that party!"

And then the car stopped, and our guide said "Have a drink. That's our table."

Oh hallelujah, I love Christmas.

Unbeknownst to us, all of the lodges in South Luangwa get together every Christmas Eve on the bridge for a party. A choir of local staff from the lodges performed Zambian Christmas songs, breaking occasionally for the crowd to sing with them to classic Christmas carols. It was the best Christmas Eve I have had in many years.

We drove back to the lodge after sunset, the insects pinging us in the face. On arrival, there were more drinks, and even more food. We sated ourselves and happily bedded down early, getting ready for our sunrise game drive.

Of which I will write on my next entry. It's now time for me to go home and cook dinner.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Country Number 32

I visited Zambia at Christmas, which means I am still keeping to at least one country per year of my life. I've now been to 32 countries, or 14% of the world's total. That's if you count the Vatican, which sort of seems like cheating, but hey. So here's where I've been in my short 29 years:

create your own visited country map
or write about it on the open travel guide

These maps always make me feel like there are so many more places that I have yet to go to.

More details on the Zambia trip to follow.

Friday, January 5, 2007

Christmas with Malawi's orphans

My sister and I attended a very special party over the holidays. There was no champagne, no party dresses, no hor d'oeuvres. We ate nsima and a bit of stringy chicken, sat in a cramped sitting room, and danced with about 40 shabbily-dressed children to 50 Cent on an old tinny stereo. It was one of the best Christmas parties I've been to in a long time.

Edward, a man who cleans the floors in my office, felt called several years ago to do something about the large number of orphans in his community. With his wife, he formed a local organization to provide food, housing, and school fees for the neediest of those children. The first orphan they took in, a little boy named Aaron, died of AIDS in the first few months, so the organization was named Aaron Orphan Care in his honor. Edward spends all his weekends, evenings, and holidays working to improve the orphanage, and he and his wife are amazingly committed to the organization.

Aaron Orphan Care now supports about 80 children, many of whom are HIV-positive. These children are usually brought by relatives who have little means to support them, and range in age from 2 to 18. The children live in the small main building, or in rented houses with volunteer caregivers. They receive meals each day at the center, their school fees are paid, and the caregivers are given basic items like blankets and clothing for the children. A nearby plot of land was recently bought, and food for the year is grown by the volunteers.

The children were really excited to meet us, and every single one wanted to shake my hand (more than once). Their clothing was tattered and worn, but the children were healthy and active, and the center was filled with books and pictures of their activities.

My sister, a schoolteacher, raised donations from her students and colleagues. She ended up getting two large bags full of clothes, stuffed animals, books, art supplies, and toys. Every single child was given a stuffed animal when we arrived, and they all wanted to have their picture taken with them.

I could understand how Madonna could come to a Malawian orphanage and walk out with a baby - I had the same impulse of just wanting to take one of them home so that I could provide a good life. The girl in the picture here was so adorable, and sweet, and sharp as a tack - keeping up with all the older children's jokes and games. I've never been able to imagine adopting a child before, but she definitely raised the notion in my mind. The youngest of the group, she had been with Aaron Orphan Care almost her whole life. You could see how the other children protected and doted on her, and you got the sense that these kids have formed a whole new family together.
After lunch, we were treated to a performance by a bright, articulate group of the older boys in the orphanage, and then the caregivers sang us a song of welcome and thanks. This was followed by a poem, a small play which sent the children into great giggles, and a few short speeches.
I'm looking forward to my next chance to go back, and I plan to take the staff of the orphanage to a local garden where they demonstrate high-yield gardening practices to improve their crops. Jorge would like to get more involved as well. In my work, where I am so far removed from the children who ultimately benefit, it's nice to be able to just hold a child's hand and give her a new toy, and to see the happiness that it brings.

Thursday, January 4, 2007

LSU Tailgating

New Orleans was in the news a fair bit today. The big news, of course, is that the LSU Tigers won the Sugar Bowl, which was once again held in the New Orleans SuperDome. Oh, how I wish I could have been among the raucous tailgaters. LSU tailgating is something you just have to experience to understand.

Once, four years ago, Jorge and I wrangled tickets for a big game at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge. We drove out with Jorge's Brother-in-law Jeff, and met up some friends who are members of the Halfass Tailgatin' Tigers. There was a DJ, a tent to dance under, jambalaya, red beans and rice, and coolers and coolers full of Coors Light. Good times.

Jorge and I had a blast. We had been dating for about a year at the time, and had a bit too much to drink. Just before we were about to enter the stadium, Jorge turned to me and said "I promise I'll do this again sometime, and I'll do it right then," and then he dropped to one knee and asked if I would marry him, as hundreds of LSU fans and college students cheered. Of course I said yes, we hugged, there were more cheers, and then we looked sheepishly at Jorge's brother-in-law, who just said "Well, I'll just keep this to myself for now, huh?" to which we eagerly agreed.

True to their word, Jeff didn't say a thing, and Jorge proposed properly a year later.

For another, not so positive story about New Orleans in the news, read here. I know that the gulf coast is increasingly vulnerable to hurricanes, but I can't say I blame people for rebuilding their homes. Why is it OK to rebuild in Northridge, or Miami, or San Francisco, but not New Orleans? If the government hadn't built shoddy, criminally negligent levees in the first place, we wouldn't even be in this mess.

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Travels in Malawi

This website will be a flurry of activity over the next week or two, as I attempt to catch up with everything that has happened while I've been on vacation.

My sister Miriam visited me for a much-too-short 10 days over the holidays. I am really blessed to have two incredible, cool sisters, and it was so great to get to share a bit of my life with Miriam.

Unfortunately we had a late start getting off on our travels, as we were still waiting for the paperwork on our car to be finalized when she arrived (every Malawian we asked said "Oh, it takes less than a day." I will tell you more about Malawi time and what that means on another day). Suffice it to say, when we took matters into our own hands, we were able to resolve everything within 45 minutes, and hit the road.

We spent 3 days driving down to the South of the country and back, visiting Zomba, Mt. Mulanje, and Blantyre.

Zomba is a shady, green city that was once the colonial capital of Malawi. It still retains many of its beautiful old brick buildings and charm. Rising over the town is the Zomba Plateau, a massive edifice with its own completely separate ecosystem. Driving up, we bought passionfruit, rhubarb, and peaches - all treats in this tropical country. We had lunch at the Ku Chawe Inn, an old hotel perched on the lip of the plateau, then hired a guide to walk us to a nearby waterfall. We literally walked up a dirt road for 20 minutes until we came to a sign saying "Waterfall," so I'm thinking the guide was a bit superfluous.

On the next day, we drove a few more hours south to Mulanje, where the third-highest mountain in Africa, Mt. Mulanje, is located. Dutifully following our guidebook, we drove past all the whistling would-be touts on our way to the forestry station. Upon reaching a detour sign, we thought it would be best to stop to make sure the road was OK. It seems that the recent rains had washed out the bridge ahead, so we went ahead and hired another local guide to take us to, well, another waterfall. It could be that this was all a scam to keep us from getting to the official government guides, but it all worked out I suppose.

This was no easy stroll through the woods. We walked for 90 minutes solidly uphill, in very high heat. I didn't think my legs were going to hold out. In the end, I copped out about 50 feet away from the waterfall, as getting to it entailed scrambling over a bunch of boulders, and I suspected that once I got down, I'd never get back up again. I blamed a dodgy tummy, but the truth is that I have gotten so out of shape since Hurricane Katrina canceled my very first attempt at a 5K race over a year ago. But it was a hell of a hike, too.

The exertion left me with a splitting migraine, so I had to stay home in bed while Miriam and Jorge went out to the best restaurant in the country, a steakhouse with the best filet mignon.

On the third day we did a bit of shopping in Blantyre, then drove back to Lilongwe, stopping in the town of Dedza, where there is a nice cafe and pottery shop.

Monday, January 1, 2007

Happy New Year!

Well, I'm back from my extended absence. I'm sure you're all breathing easier now. All two of you (hi dad!)

Ah, 2007. Boy, that makes me feel old. I'm turning 30 this year. Bleagh.

I gave it a few moment's careful consideration on New Year's Eve and have decided that 2006 was a Good Year. As my years go, that's not saying a whole lot. But a good year for me entails:

  • Still cancer-free (woohoo!)
  • No periods of unemployment
  • No deaths or serious illness among my loved ones
  • No catastrophic natural disasters
  • And my beautiful husband is still crazy about me

Not bad, really. In the negative column, I spent 6 months apart from my husband, and had a number of somewhat traumatic experiences involving helicopters, mortar shells, overheard assassinations, and charred remains . But those are things in the past, and I try not to dwell on them too much.

I think I have said this every year for 3 years now, but I'm really hoping for a nice, uneventful new year.

My New Year's plans sort of fell apart this year. We had a chalet on the lake booked, and were sharing it with 3 colleagues. One ended up having to work, another got malaria, and then our car had trouble. So we ended up driving to a nearby dam, having a cookout, and then going to a local bar for drinks and to ring in the new year. But it was great, because I stuck to a lesson I learned a little too late - New Year's is best spent with friends and family.

I considered making a public resolution, thinking perhaps that if I stuck it out here on the blogosphere I might be more likely to stick to it. But really, I would just be advertising my inevitable failure, so I think I'll just have to take a pass.

Instead, I'll wish you all a prosperous, successful new year, and hope that I'll be able to have one as well.