Friday, April 27, 2007


My mom got cancer when I was 18, and I did the whole cliché live-for-the-moment, each day like the it’s the last, party like it’s 1999 thing.

Then I got cancer myself. It gave me a lot of time to ponder the meaning of life, sitting around waiting for chemo to finish, watching buoyant college kids hugging Bob Barker on the Price is Right. And what was my deep, meaningful realization?

I really, really like being alive.

I’m sure that doesn’t seem like such a profound thing. You probably think everyone feels that way. I just don’t think other people feel quite as strongly about it as I do. I just can’t stress this point enough: Life = Good Stuff.

So, having figured this out, I have become a bit of a nervous Nellie. Even the remotest chance of losing life or limb is too much for me.

Odds of getting hit by lightning? 1 in 240,000. I still head inside the minute I hear thunder.

Shark attack? 1 in 11.5 million. Think about this next time you see me waist deep in the ocean, scanning the water for phantom fins, before I bail 10 minutes later.

Take two weeks ago. A friend owns a big 16-seater tourism truck, and he took us for a ride up hills, through villages, and down overgrown rural roads. It was a beautiful day. Everyone loved it. What was I thinking?
  • I’m going to fall out the back of this thing and end up with a permanent brain injury.
  • The truck is going to flip over, fall off this cliff, and kill us all. Do I have enough time to jump out the back first?
  • We are never going to make it across this bridge.
  • We are going to get stuck in the mud and have to walk back in the dark, and will probably get lost for days, or attacked by angry villagers.

This is slightly ironic, because everyone tells me how brave I am. I’m constantly in situations of potential harm. I work in war zones. I swim in bilharzia-ridden waters, and towel off surrounded by malarial mosquitoes.

I eat cheese made from unpasteurized milk.

Maybe I haven’t ever given up on that whole livin’ life to the fullest crock. I just grit my teeth, obsessively worry the whole time, and then get home and think “well, that wasn’t so bad after all.”

Anyway, here are some pics from the most recent life-threatening adventure:

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Sir Edmund Hillary, Look Out

My man carries his own backpack up mountains. He don't need no stinkin' sherpa. And he doesn’t even take a sleeping bag.

While I was busy working, Jorge went with a few of our friends to Mt. Mulanje, the third highest peak in Africa. It took just two days to hike to the top, but it’s a steep, grueling hike. There were four of them when they set off, but after a few hours of uphill climbing, one had to give up and turn back.

When Jorge arrived at the mountain hut on the first evening, it was filled with fellow hikers. They all came equipped with sleeping bags, mats, towels, food, utensils. What did Jorge have? Some water, a few cans of tuna, a bottle of vodka, and the clothes on his back.

This was not his fault however. Kent, our friend (and perhaps not coincidentally, the one who turned back early) told Jorge that everything they needed could be obtained by joining the Mountaineer’s Club when they got to Mulanje. Only you can’t join the day of your hike, as they discovered when they got there.

So Jorge had a fitful night’s rest, huddled shivering near the dying fire. It was worsened by the fact that he had broken the water faucet just before bed, and got soaked by the spray. Woops.

The next day he hiked to the peak, called Sapitwa (which means in the local language: Don’t Go There) all the time worrying about how he would make it through the second night, in an even higher, and colder location. He tucked his legs into a backpack, lay every piece of fabric he had over himself, and nuzzled in between his two remaining companions. Given the circumstances, I will let it pass that he spooned another woman.

He had a great time though. He’s already planning his next mountain climb, to Kilimanjaro, and in June he will run up Mt. Mulanje in the annual Porter’s race.

Monday, April 16, 2007

What's harder than paying taxes overseas?


I got an absentee ballot in the mail today from Jefferson Parish. It contained several very important levy measures - increasing funding for Louisiana schools, storm drainage systems, and parks and community centers. All things I am highly in favor of.

The only problem? The ballot was due on election day - March 31st.

The earliest any of my friends here have gotten their absentee ballots is just one day after it was due. So don't count on me turning the tide should the next presidential election come to a hand-count. I am out of the race.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

The vagaries of being an expat taxpayer

The U.S. is the only country I know of that requires you to file taxes even if you don’t actually live there. I know people who haven’t been back home to the states in some 10 years, but are still diligently filing their returns every April.

Today is tax day, and I haven’t even begun to start the process of estimating my taxes for this year. There are a lot of little rules and regulations regarding American citizens who live abroad. What I’ve been able to glean is:

  • I must report all the income that was paid to me by a foreign agency (I get paid tax-free by my employer)
  • If I am in the US for fewer than 30 days in the last year, I don’t pay any taxes on the first 80,000 of my income (hehe. The “first” 80,000. I want that job.)
  • On the other hand, if I am home for more than 30 days, I owe Uncle Sam all the taxes I didn’t pay during the year.

In 2006, I was home for about 6 weeks. Bugger.

So now the tricky part is: How much did I get paid last year? I didn’t save all of my paystubs, and my bank account that I got paid into has been closed, so I have no record of my income. I think I’m just going to give the IRS a ballpark figure and hope they don’t audit poor broke aid workers like me.

The good news is that next year we’ll be totally tax-free. I just have to figure out how file for an extension today before the internet goes out…

Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Destruction of the English Language

NGO's (that's non-governmental organization for those of you not in the biz) do good work, mostly. There are a few bad apples out there, who do more eventual damage than good by ruining the fabric of the community in which they work, but overall, they've come a long way since the scandal-ridden days of big, useless development projects in the 80s and 90s.

But there is one way in which I fear they are doing irreparable harm: inventing horrible, long, redundant jargon.

My organization is in the midst of a strategic planning process, which has been going on for months. Some of the words that frequently make me cringe are:
  • Impact, used as a verb. (Is it so hard to say "make an impact"? Although this has now apparently made it into English dictionaries, to me it is still wrong).
  • Complementarities
  • Modalities
  • Methodologies (what's wrong with methods?)
  • And the very worst, the one that makes my skin crawl every time I hear it: Orientate
I know it was surely a mistake, but I recently saw on the cover of a goverment document: "Preventation of malnutrition."

Yesterday I used the word "operationalize." Someone please pray for me.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Happy Easter

8I missed church again this year, Easter Sunday. For the first 26 years of my life, I never, not once, missed church on Easter. It was actually my favorite holiday for a long time (until I discovered Mardi Gras). It was the one day of the year for me that was always 100% about family. Even on Christmas I went out with my friends as a teenager. But not Easter.

On Easter mornings back in Seattle, I would wake up to an Easter basket filled with candies and goodies. Sometimes my mom even created a treasure hunt that sent us running around the house, finding rhyming clues tucked behind the 70s decor and family heirlooms, eventually leading my sisters and me to a closet loaded with chocolates from Sees and Cadbury's.

As a kid, Easter was just about the one day my mom could get me to brush my hair and put on a dress. In church we saw all the old friends who only surfaced around Passover and Christmas Eve.

After church was the best tradition though - the Easter egg hunt. This was so popular we forced my dad to keep it up until I was 18 and went off to college. Then after that, the event was rekindled for the children of my sister's friends. We had the best, big backyard for hiding eggs. You'd find them tucked into the crooks of tree trunks, nestled in the rockery, even inside tulip blooms.

For the last four years, I've been in Africa on Easter. My favorite country for Easter was Eritrea, where families have huge family gatherings and typically slaughter a sheep or goat for the occasion. For the week leading up to Easter, you would see livestock transported in every way imaginable - shepherded into the trunks of taxis, legs tied around the necks of bicyclists like backpacks. On Easter I spent the day with a friend and his Eritrean coworkers. I'm pretty sure I ate brain - but maybe it was tripe - followed by cup after miniature cup of strong, sweet coffee.

In Ghana the women, who dress like the royalty in "Coming to America" just to go to buy milk, really went all out with their Sunday best.

Last year, Jorge and I missed the Coptic Egyptian Christmas by just a day, where pilgrims travel to the medieval quarter of Cairo to burn incense and sing atmospheric chants in ancient churches. We visited the well where Mary and Joseph were said to have lived near during their years in Egypt.

This year? Well, I thought the 1st was Easter, and we had friends for brunch - a nice communion, I should say. We spent the afternoon by the dam, sailing and watching birds. But it turns out I'm actually spending Easter trapped in a Ministry of Health workshop, so I think I prefer the other version better.