Tuesday, August 31, 2010

While I'm at it

Since I'm doing old photos this week...

Tomorrow I fly off to Ethiopia for 10 days. Nothing fun, just a work trip. I seem to be traveling quite a lot for work lately. Add that to the stress of trying to finish out a number of major projects before my maternity leave kicks in, and it's a pretty hectic time.

I wanted to go to Ethiopia years ago, after reading one random story in a National Geographic magazine about Lalibela, the famous town where, hundreds of years ago, the Ethiopians carved a labyrinth-like complex of churches and tunnels straight down into the rock.

So when I got my first overseas job, an internship in Eritrea, I took advantage of my connections in the UN to secure a spot on the UN cargo plane that flew in between Asmara and Addis Ababa - the only way to fly directly between the two countries.

My dad and his wife Joan met me there, and we spent two weeks traveling around the historic sites of the North, seeing the medieval-style churches of Gonder, the ancient, boggling stelae of Axum (no one nows how they ever erected these huge obelisks), and of course, the churches of Lalibela. It was a really wonderful trip, one I have never forgotten. So even though next week I will be spending all my time in a hotel conference room talking about how to design a child survival project and how to prevent chronic malnutrition, I will be remembering this trip. And eating lots and lots of shiro. Mmmmm.

The Blue Nile Falls

A royal castle in Gonder.

The most famous church in Lalibela - was it St. George's? I can't recall anymore. But it's stunning.

A view of the top of the church in Lalibela.

This priest in Lalibela spends so much time indoors, and has his photo taken so often, that he puts on sunglasses to guard against the flash! :-)

One of the incredible obelisks in Axum. Sorry for my dad's thumb in the photo...

Dad and me out for a walk in Axum

Monday, August 30, 2010

Has it really been 5 years?

And yet it feels like such a long time ago, when Jorge and I were heading off to go watch "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" despite the protests of my mother-in-law that we would surely be killed the moment we stepped out the door. We were hours away from the eye of Hurricane Katrina by then, though, among the very few New Orleans residents who decided, against general wisdom, to go East into Florida to evacuate ahead of the storm. I mean, when a hurricane's a-comin', who decides the safest place is FLORIDA? Everyone else is usually trying to get to sunny Texas, not the storm-magnet state. But there we were, the rain pelting down, the wind whipping around us, and the news showing the same old shots of frantic palm-branches in the wind and giant waves. So we figured, what the hell? Why not go to the movies?

It wasn't for another full week before the enormity of the situation finally dawned upon me. As we all did after the storm, Jorge and I spent much of our free time watching the cable news channels, trying to decipher what was really happening. And I said to Jorge, "So have you talked to work? When do they want you to be back?" And Jorge looked at me like I'd just grown another head and said "Baby? There IS no work." And it hit me that everything we knew and counted on - friends, jobs, homes, Tuesday nights at the Maple Leaf Bar - all that was gone. At least for the time being. And back then, you never really knew if it would all come back. And finally I cried.

We counted ourselves among the lucky ones. We lived in a two-story apartment that only got a couple feet of flooding, meaning most of our home stayed dry. We had friends and family who happily took us in while the landlord gutted the place. Jorge's employer managed to accomodate the changing needs of the community, and suddenly he temporarily found himself in the tree-removing, blue-tarp-laying, mold-killing business. After a few weeks, we went home to a very desolate, lonely place. Where if you wanted to eat out, you had better plan ahead, because the few places still serving food shut down at 8 for the night. Where the shuttered coffeeshops seemed to have left their modems on, so that when the power came back, we could join the lines of people sitting on the sidewalks to catch up on e-mail.

Some of our friends were not so lucky; a couple of them lost their entire homes and everything in them. Some went away and never returned. We all coped with the scars of going off one day, feeling like we were just having a weekend holiday and waking up Monday with our city just disintegrated, all our friends gone. (What did I pack with me for the 6 weeks I spent evacuated? One miniskirt, one pair of shorts, a few shirts, and TWO bikinis. I'd be useless in a nuclear holocaust, I tell you.)

In honor of the city we love, our second home, here are some photos from that time:

Just another beach weekend, right?

Jorge got home early, before any of the really basic clean-up could be done. There were power lines and trees down everywhere. And still a few bodies on the streets.

Cleaning out the apartment. Notice the bath-tub ring of mold.

Dora watching over all our ruined junk. The city looked like this for months, discarded refrigerators and ripped out carpet everywhere.

Our apartment after being gutted.

Our friend Jonathan's neighborhood was one of the worst-hit. This photo was taken six months after the hurricane.

Jorge had the unfortunate job of searching for Jonathan's passport in this mess. What you see all over the floor is sodden insulation from the ceiling.

Thursday, August 26, 2010


Everyone who lives in Africa for very long accumulates a nice trove of stories around ineptitude - there's the friend of mine who, for example, picked her car up from the mechanic, only to find that they had sliced her entire car engine clear in half. Or another friend who followed up with a supplier on the school supplies he'd been told had been ordered 6 months earlier, only to find that the order was never placed. The person-I-shall-not-name who tried to clean our car with steel wool. Things like that happen regularly in Malawi.

But Jorge had a very interesting experience of ineptitude while walking through a busy shopping area of Lilongwe last week. He was going to meet a friend, when a very tiny Malawian man walked up to him and said "Give me the money."

"What?" Said Jorge, a little surprised. We're used to small children yelling out "Givah me a-mon-ee!" as we walk past, but it's unusual for adults to be so bold.

"Give me the money!" He repeated. Again, Jorge was just totally confused, and said again, "What?!"

Finally, the little man pulled from his pocket a small, blunt kitchen knife, about 3 inches in length, and repeated his demand. At this point Jorge was still a wee bit puzzled, and amused at the size of the knife, but was starting to realize that the poor guy was trying to rob him. So Jorge just said "No." The little Malawian seemed to be stumped at that point, unable to figure out what his next move should be.

At that point Jorge saw the friend he was meeting, waved, and then gently took the would-be-robber's hand and held it out of his way as he walked the few feet to talk to his friend. The foiled robber just continued to stand there plaintively nearby,I suppose still hoping for some money, as the crowds all milled around them. And then Jorge walked off and went on with his day.

It makes me very grateful indeed that Malawi is still at the point where most people haven't even figured how to be criminal very well.

Monday, August 23, 2010

OK. OK. I get it.

Yeah, so I know I have been AWOL. It hasn’t been an easy couple of months. But that’s no excuse – when has my life ever been easy? I think I deliberately prevent it from becoming so…

But then I checked Facebook the other day and saw this:

"Chris J. is wondering if his favorite sister-in-law-in-Malawi will ever blog again..."

Alright, alright. I hear you people ( all 5 of you who still read this blog). You want posts. So post I shall.

(But nuts…what should I say?) I guess I can start by saying why I haven’t been on much. And it’s not just that I haven’t been writing – I haven’t read any blogs in ages either. At work I’m usually too swamped, and at home…well, at home I’m swamped too. That’s life as a working mama.

And it isn’t just that – I just have felt lately that the only things that come to my mind to write about are so….negative. For example, there’s the growing number of articles in the Malawi newspapers blaming women who are raped, because their short skirts and exposed thighs “force” men into assaulting them. How about the government up and changing the flag (which I thought was very nice) in a dramatic show of government will ignoring the opinions of the people? And I’m increasingly depressed by the poverty wages paid to hard-working Malawians – our housekeeper was recently offered 6,000 Malawi Kwacha ($40) per month for full time employment at another house (he declined, naturally). Aid workers hardly pay much more, despite supposedly being here to ‘help’ the people.

The US is no better a topic for discussion – the percentage of Americans who believe that Obama is Muslim nearly doubled in the past few months, and Republicans STILL have the balls to suggest that the way out of financial crisis is to lower taxes and bankrupt the federal government (seriously, haven't we learned?). It’s all too depressing for words sometimes, so I just keep quiet.

Then of course I have my own work frustrations, for example a horrendous trip to Uganda last month, the rapidly rising cost of living in Malawi (it’s WAY more expensive in Africa than people think) and my shrinking wages as the Euro tanks, working hard every day for little recognition or reward.

I like to think of myself as a pretty positive person. After all, I went through chemo and radiation with hardly a peep of protest. It pains me to complain on this blog. A central value of my childhood was “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” So again, I just keep quiet.

But it’s not all doom and gloom around here. After all, I do have just about the best family any woman could ask for. How many women, after 6 years of marriage, still get two dozen roses on a Tuesday afternoon from their husband, for no reason at all? And even though Milo is fully TWO in all of its glory (and being potty trained on top of all that), he still charms me every day with his tremendous capacity for love and unsuppressed joy. And there’s even more reason for happiness around the C. household now, as our little family will grow to 4 soon, sometime at the end of this year.

(You like how I snuck that in there?)

But I have heard the people, and I will respond to their little plaintive pleas. I may need some help on coming up with topics, though. So, anyone want to suggest what you would like to hear more about? Got questions for me? Post them in the comments, and I’ll try to start writing more. After all, this is a two-way street folks – you want blog posts? I need validation. Comments. Lots of ‘em.