Friday, December 9, 2011

Ho ho ho!

This may sound strange, but we’re kind of rookies to this whole Christmas thing. I mean, I left home when I was 18, and came home a handful of times for the holidays, but for most of the past 15 years both Jorge and I have just drifted from one friend or family member’s home to another at Christmas (or even better, spent Christmas at a luxury safari lodge. One year I spent Christmas wrapped up in blankets, sitting outside in a cold Darfur desert winter, sipping smuggled-in whiskey. Another year I’m pretty sure I went to my sister’s in-laws but it’s all a blur. And there’s even The-Christmas-That-Must-Not-Be-Named that we try not to speak about in our house.

We’ve never really had a chance to establish Christmas traditions. One year, two years ago, we just decided to stay home. It was me, Jorge, and Milo, and we opened presents, went to the park, and then cooked ourselves up a huge turkey dinner and invited our one friend unfortunate enough to have nowhere to go over for dinner. And I have to say, that was an awesome Christmas.

One of the draws of moving to Ireland for the winter was for Milo to experience the holidays the way I did as a kid – carving pumpkins at Halloween and going trick-or-treating, decorating a tree and peeling back the little paper doors of the advent calendar. Never mind that the tree is about 4 feet tall and plastic, and that the advent calendar is covered with pictures of Lightning McQueen. This is the real Christmas here, people.

Last weekend, we thought we’d go really conventional and take Milo to meet Santa Claus. Now, I don’t remember ever doing this as a child; I suspect my parents couldn’t be bothered to try to get three wild, unruly girls to stand in line for that long. But it seems to be the thing to do these days, and since we’re trying to fit in, you know, we went for it.

The first thing that hit us was the sticker shock. 8 Euros (10 dollars) per kid? Sorry Dean, you’re just going to have to mail in your requests to Santa, my friend. But we paid up for Milo, and then wandered through the underwhelming “grotto” to the North Pole, where Santa sat, fake beard slightly gapping away from his chin. Milo was nervous, naturally, but stuck his hand out to shake hands with Santa like a little gentleman. It took some prompting, but finally Milo warmed up and told Santa that for Christmas he wanted “Everything.” Well done son, I like how you think.

Then we took some obligatory photos (tossed Dean in there for good measure), Milo and Dean got gifts from the elf (which were actually pretty cool gifts), and then waved goodbye to the jolly Big Man.

I selected a photo, and then continued on with my shopping. A few minutes later a very helpful capitalist elf found me and apologetically told me she’d forgotten to collect the money for the photo. That’s OK, I told her, we paid already. Very embarrassed, she told me that no, it’s another TEN EURO for the photo! I said thanks but no thanks, I can take a photo with a DSLR set to Auto just as well (and as it turns out, better) as you elves can. But since the photo was already printed, they let us take that baby home for free anyway. And indeed, it was about as good as I’d have gotten with a camera phone; I suppose Santa’s standards are slipping what with out of control population growth. But all in all, thanks to our chutzpah and shameless stinginess, our Santa’s visit turned out to be a success. But next year, Milo’s just gonna have to yell his requests to Santa from outside the building.

Good lord, we’re cheap.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Home is where the beer is

Greetings from Ethiopia.

People keep asking me, “What are you doing in Ethiopia? I thought you worked in Ireland now.”

Shall I remind you that I work for a humanitarian organization, and that, while Ireland certainly does seem to be on the edge of a crisis, it’s been a loooong time since the potato famine. And that yes, a diet based primarily on cured pork and potatoes is probably not the most nutritious, there are still plenty of children out there in the world not getting even that. So indeed, I did not actually move to Ireland to lead an emergency nutrition intervention there; Dublin is just a base for me to be able to travel out to other countries with more pressing needs.

Last week I attended an international conference on nutrition, and met many accomplished and fascinating people from governments around the world, as well as universities, the UN, and donor agencies. This coming week I will be helping our Ethiopia office develop their program design for several new projects.

It’s nice to be back ‘on the continent’. While I can’t say I miss the traffic, or the pollution, or being conspicuously foreign, I have been reminded just how friendly and the expat community is, how easy it is to fall into comfortable conversation over a cup of tea or a glass of local beer. The challenge of working in difficult contexts still feels like an interesting puzzle to solve, rather than a frustration.

This is my longest trip away from Dean I’ve ever had to make, and I’m a bit worried the little stinker will learn to walk while I’m gone, but travel is just one of the things I’ve become accustomed to over the years. I miss my boys, but I know they will be fine until I get home.

At the moment I am staying in my organization’s ‘guest house’ in the city of Addis Ababa. It’s been a very, very long time since I stayed in a guest house like this, and it brings back such funny memories of the months that I lived in Sudan. Guest houses are funny places. They are filled with odd little remnants of past guests, such as nearly-empty jars of Nutella with only a bit of dried out paste left in the bottom. At the same time, there never seems to be enough of the most basic items, as no one wants to buy stuff only to have everyone else use it up. We’ve been out of sugar for days now.

Guest houses are always bare and undecorated, but also usually have extensive libraries of paperback novels and gossip magazines. People drift in and out, sometimes stopping to have long talks over the dining room table, sometimes not seeming to return to the house for days. There is always a vague feeling of it being a fraternity house – as if not too long ago, someone threw a kegger and no one ever got around to completely cleaning up afterwards.

While I’m grateful for the space and the comfort – a kitchen to cook my dinner in, internet access a BBC on the TV – I have to say I will be most delighted to return to my pokey little Dublin apartment in a week.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Say what?

Well, what do you know... there was a presidential election in Ireland yesterday! And I had no clue.

I suppose you could say that this fact speaks volumes about my civic engagement and interest in my new home. I would argue, though, that it has much more to do with my consumption of Irish media (or lack thereof).

First, we have no television. We haven’t owned one since Hurricane Katrina wiped out ours 6 years ago. No radio, either.

I tried reading the newspaper a few times since I arrived last month, but never made it far, finding the news to be incomprehensible or astoundingly provincial. Instead, I have been relying on the NPR website for my news (in my defense, I have been making a special effort to read the stories about the Euro-zone bailout. But it’s just so bo-o-o-ring).

The election was there on the periphery of my consciousness. We’ve seen signs, and I’ve read the odd headline, but was all so low-key that I had no idea the election was near. After all, in the U.S., on the day of the election stores would be loudly proclaiming their Election Day Sales; the McDonald’s would probably be selling Big Macs festooned with little American flags; no one would get any work done because they’d be glued to the web, refreshing the page every minute to see the changing vote counts and colourful state maps. Here, it was just a normal day like any other, apart from the fact that people went into their polling station (or whatever it is they do here) and turned in their ballot.

Now, don’t ask me who is actually president, my interest in the subject hasn’t extended so far as for me to actually find out. I’m told it’s the balding little man with wild, white hair fringing his head. I think it’s the guy that Jorge thinks looks like a Princess Bride character. Maybe I'll go online and look it up.

Or maybe I'll check Facebook instead. Lunch hour is only so long, you know.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Exploring, part 3

After two weeks without an apartment, we changed tactics, and decided to rent a car for the week so that we could drive around and get to places that were further afield (ironically, we ended up renting the first place we looked at that week, which also happened to be 5 blocks away from the hotel where we were staying. Go figure.) Even though we didn’t end up doing too much apartment-hunting after all, it was great to have the car, for, uh…well…IKEA runs. And weekend getaways, of course.

On our next weekend trip, taken just after we picked up the car, we went to a seaside town on the outskirts of Dublin called Malahide. There is a lovely, well-preserved Norman-era castle there, which was occupied by a noble family right up until the 70s. In fact, the name of the last owner was…wait for it… Lord Milo!

However, halfway through the castle tour Jorge started patting his pockets rather desperately, looking for the car keys. Yes indeed, just four hours into rental car ownership, my dear husband lost the keys. And of course, he didn’t lose them inside the house; no, he lost them somewhere along the 20 minute walk we took through the very spacious park around the castle.

Fortunately, the kind soul who discovered them lying on the path took them back to the parking lot, unlocked the car, looked for the blinking lights, and left our keys inside the car (thank you Good Samaritan, wherever you are!)

Jorge, not content to let me relax, ever, decided then to play a prank and convince me that the person who returned our keys had then stolen the I-Pad from the glove compartment in return, which sort of marred my joy at not having to walk home. He didn’t have the heart to keep up the scam for long, though. Needless to say, we no longer keep valuables in the car, and I hold the car keys when we go out.
In all the excitement, however, I didn’t take a single photo. Sorry.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Exploring, part 2

After our grey, wet day South of Dublin at Glendalough, we decided to go in the opposite direction, up North to County Meath.

Our destination was a place called Newgrange, which is a prehistoric site built several thousand years ago. There is a complex of tombs which are buried under very carefully constructed mounds, each rock placed so precisely that the cavern inside is perfectly watertight. To get to the tombs, one must walk down a narrow, dark tunnel. Once a year, on the winter solstice, the tomb is illuminated by a single shaft of light pouring down the corridor (if the sun comes out at all, that is). Stonehenge has got nothing on this place.

The most beautiful detail for me was the stone work. The site has been carefully reassembled with the original stones (the whole place was buried for millennia until, naturally, one day a cow farmer came along and dug in just the right place (and I mean that literally - he just happened to start digging immediately over the entrance to the tomb). The front of the tomb, which faces the sunrise, is walled with bright white stones; as you wander around the outside, more and more black rocks are mixed in, until you get around the back, where all the rocks are black. This is the shadow, you see. Incredible.

Needless to say, it was a pretty remarkable place. Jorge was extremely impressed that a) I took him someplace so cool in our first weekend, and b) I managed to find the place eventually. You see, my internal GPS seems to be in need of a bit of a tune-up these days. We spent a lot of time in the first two weeks we were here driving in circles, turning into one-way streets the wrong way, and bickering. Now I just leave the navigation to Jorge, and keep my mouth shut when he gets us lost, because inevitably, we turn up right where we intended, with no clue how we got there (I refer you to the previous post for that little magic trick).

And check it out - the first family photo I think we have taken in about 6 months!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Exploring, part 1

I am happy to report that we are now settled into our apartment. After looking at plenty of duds, we found a nice litte townhouse, 10 minutes walk from my office, a few blocks away from several grocery stores and other shops, and with a swimming pooll down the block where Milo can take lessons. It has plenty of closets, a shower with decent water pressure, and a full-sized fridge. And best of all, the landlord wanted someone to do a short-term lease, so we dont have to worry about losing our deposit once my contract is up. So all in all, we got pretty much everything we wanted.

We've already made two trips out to IKEA to stock up (although luckily the partment also came furnished, and had many of the household items we needed) which was probably the highlight of the week last night. What can I say, we are big Swedish meatball lovers in this family.

In our very rare spare time, we have been trying to get out a bit and see a litte of the country. We're starting close to home, then planning to take a few long weekends to go further afield. While the good news is that overall the weather in Ireland has been better than expected, the bad news is that on the days we do manage to make it out of the house, it always rains. Except this last weekend; it was beautiful - and then of course I forgot my camera. Oh well.

Here are some photos from our first excursion, to a 6th century monastic settlement called Glendalough. It's located in Wicklow National Park, an area of beatiful, heather-covered moors and stream-cut valleys. I got us deeply lost on the way there, but there is something oddly magical about Ireland - we always end up where we are supposed to be, having no idea on earth how we managed to get there. Jorge tested it one day and went out for a drive with the kids, deliberatly trying to get lost, and inevitably he ended up blocks away from the house.

If Jorge looks a little strange, it's beause he's trying to look at the camera while at the same time watch Milo out of the corner of his eye. But it's the best photo I've got.

If you look closely you can see Dean's two little teeth poking out!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Random thoughts on blogging

Hello? Anybody out there? In honor of my completely gutted readership, I thought I’d share some of my latest thoughts on blogging for the scant few of you who still bother to come to this site (and yet never comment on ANYthing. Lazy slobs.)

1) I took a long sabbatical from blogging, I know. To tell you the truth, after 5 years in Malawi, I was beginning to feel like I just had nothing good to say anymore. Malawi is still a lovely country, don’t get me wrong. I’d live there over, say, Chad or the Central African Republic any day. But things have been on a gradual decline for the past year, and it was sad to see. I’ve already written about the fuel shortages, of course, and the protests. But I didn’t write about the concerns over governance, the way the government seemed to be increasingly intolerant of criticism, sometimes taking out full page ads in the newspaper, explaining point by point why a) they have never made any mistakes at all, ever, and b) the opposition are idiots.

However, this blog has never been about politics (although every day I am finding it increasingly difficult to restrain from mocking the Republican Party), and as a humanitarian aid worker, I can jeopardize my own ability to work in a country by saying the wrong thing, so mum was the word. I feel conflicted about my silence however; isn’t it my duty to speak out when I see something unjust?

2) I never wrote about this one: I got Twittered. Tweeted?

It was the day of the protests in Lilongwe, and someone (cough cough government cough) had managed to shut down all the radio stations. Nyasa Times had reportedly been hacked. At any rate, there were no readily available news source. So for the first time, I turned to Twitter. For the rest of the day, I refreshed, read, and repeated.

Then I read something curious. Someone tweeted about a blogger named Gwyneth who worked in Public Health in Malawi. “Wow!” I thought “There’s another Gwyneth working in public health in Malawi? And she has a blog too! What are the odds?” And then it occurred to me – the odds were actually something like 6.7 million to one. They were talking about me.

I clicked through the link, and found my own blog post, written just a couple hours earlier, posted on the African news website All Africa. At first I was quite proud. But then I thought of how the government had announced it would be monitoring Facebook, and Twitter, and blogs, with the implication that those found writing negative things would face consequences. I briefly considered removing my post, but then I read my post again, and I was proud of what I had done. I decided to stand by my words.

3) Call me naïve, but I only recently realized that prospective employers Google their job candidates. Since my contract in Malawi was coming to an end, I have been steadily job-hunting over the past few months. Not long after a job interview a few months ago, I discovered that someone had found my blog by Googling me. Unfortunately, they were able to find me because a certain friend made the indiscretion of referring to our last names on this blog. I will punch him the next time I see him, but seeing as the guy is like 250 pounds, I don’t think I’ll do much harm.

But here’s something you should know, Mr. or Ms. Prospective employer. I see you. I know you’re out there, looking for me. I can now what you’re up to too.

And my next blog post is likely to be titled “Why I am the most awesome employee EVAH.”

Monday, October 10, 2011

A place to call home

So, we are back in the hotel. House-hunting is hard work here. Every morning I go through the listings, make a note of any suitable places, e-mail Jorge the numbers and addresses, and go off to work. When he gets time (that is, when the children allow him 10 minutes of peace, which is rare) he calls around and tries to make appointments for viewings. People only show apartments in the evenings, which I suppose works great for working professionals, but for parents of a baby and a preschooler with early bedtimes, it’s not ideal.

Most of the places we have seen so far have been very small. A room listed as a “double” generally means “we squeezed a double bed in there, and you will have just enough room to scoot around the edge of it and flop into bed”. We have seen “single” rooms which could have been Harry Potter’s room, i.e. The Cupboard under the Stairs. The two places we’ve seen that had a little more space were either run-down or in a neighborhood likely to get us mugged. Ah, and did I mention that the "refrigerator" in most of these places is in actuality a mini-bar?

Finally, we pushed up our budget a little, and looked at two places tonight. The first was a winner right away. It's very close to my office and in a neighborhood with lots of shops and restaurants. There's plenty of storage space and good-sized bedrooms. We told the owner we’d take it, and we could move in tomorrow. But he hemmed and hawed, and told us there were other people coming to see the apartment. Jorge was a little perplexed. “That’s fine, don’t turn them away, but we’ll take it. We can bring you cash tomorrow.” At first we wondered if he was looking for tenants perhaps a wee less…brown (and no funny accents) but gave him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe someone else called to book a viewing before us.

The next place we looked at was literally two blocks away, and also nice, but smaller, and all on one floor (we’d like a townhouse so we can sit in the living room and chat without keeping the kids awake). But I suppose beggars can’t be choosers anymore, so we also said we were interested.

So maybe some light at the end of the tunnel at last. Just five minutes ago, the owner of the townhouse called and said we are second on the list, so our second theory may have been correct after all. Tomorrow we go to see two more places, and may arrange a few more viewings after that. So we are very, very hopeful that by the weekend we will have a place to live, and can finally unpack our bags!

- Breaking newsflash - Just found out, we got the place we wanted. Cross your fingers that all goes well!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Fashion (hell) week

When you work for a job that sends you off to difficult places like remote African nations, one of the things that is always covered in your induction is how to deal with culture shock. I always brushed these sessions off, because I don’t think I’m terribly affected by culture shock. My feet hit the Seattle airport, and the next thing I want to do is go to Target. If you ask Jorge, of course, he claims that I have spent the last week glassy-eyed and slack-jawed, overwhelmed by all my options every time we enter a shopping center or department store. But don’t you listen to him, I’m doing just fine, thankyouverymuch.

There are definitely some things that it takes a while to adjust to, every time we move back and forth, though. And this time, it is the fashion. Either fashion is completely hideous right now, or Irish women are hideously unfashionable. Either way, I am completely perplexed by people’s choices in clothing.

It started in the Amsterdam airport. I thought it was a fluke when I saw my first pair of hammer pants. But then not five minutes went by, and I saw another pair, and this time in a hideous floral print. Floral hammer pants. My God, what has this world come to?

Apparently in the 6 months I was off in Africa, someone decided that the 80s, skin-tight jeans, and cut-off shorts were all due for a comeback. Apparently this person was not alive in the 80s, or they would know how horrible it all was the first time around.

Remember when you had to lay down on your bed to zip up your jeans? I caught a woman a couple days ago who couldn’t squeeze her cell phone into her pocket.

And the cut-off shorts… [shudder]. I could understand if your jeans were accidentally shortened in some kind of horrible industrial accident, and you couldn’t afford to buy new ones – but actually paying for booty shorts and then trying to winterize them with black tights…no. I cannot forgive you that, my friend.

Irish women also seem to be laboring under the misapprehension that one can actually wear black tights with anything. One particularly egregious example was a woman wearing a white floral skirt, white shoes…and black tights.

Today I found myself walking home behind a woman in an unbelievably short dress (over black tights, of course), and thinking, not for the first time, “but where are her pants?” I realized that life in Africa has left me very conservative when it comes to fashion. For me, wearing a tank top in public is like going out in your bra. Leggings (especially when your ego will not allow you to buy the size that actually fits, leaving them stretched out and translucent) to me are the same as walking around in only panty-hose. I tried to go shopping the other day, but found everything to be either too tight, too ugly, or much too short.

It figures. I’m finally in a developed country, for once not pregnant or recently post-partum, feeling great about my body, and ready to shop…and I can’t find anything I would be willing to spend money on. That is life’s way of telling me to save my pennies, I guess.

Friday, September 30, 2011

We apparently do not have the luck of the Irish yet

We have officially been living in Ireland for one week now, although it feels longer. Every day feels so full and a little bit stressful, and yet at the same time we fell like we're just not getting anything done.

Yesterday, for example, was a rough day. Jorge rode down in the morning to the immigration office to register, as we were told we should do when we arrived at the airport. However, the man at the desk there told jorge he could not register until he applied for EU residency first. He explained he does not want residency, since we are only going to be here six months (it takes 6 months before you typically receive a decision on your residency application, at which point we would be leaving). The immigration officer told Jorge "It's not my job to answer your questions. This is how we do it."

So we applied for the residency card, which required us sending off both his and my passports. Which felt very risky, given that I travel for work, and Jorge has only 3 weeks left until his initial entry stamp into the country expires. So cross your fingers they send those passports back soon!

The other tricky thing is looking for a place to live. I feel like there must be a system that I'm just not tapping into yet. Apartments all seem to be either over-priced, too small, or already taken (particularly once they hear we have children).I came in with fairly low expectations, but I'm finding it hard to accept the idea of living in a run-down neighborhood, or in a run-down apartment, especially given what I am willing to pay.

So yesterday we had a viewing of a nice-looking place lived up, and Jorge biked all the way out there, only to find no one waiting to show him the place. when we called the agent, he told Jorge that we had the time wrong, and that the viewing was at 6:15.. Jorge said "Um, it IS 6:15. I'm 15 minutes early" and the agent backtracked and said, no the appointment was at 5:45. Which was a flat-out lie. Needless to say, we crossed that apartment off our lists.

Since nothing seems to happen on the weekends here, we decided to rent a car for the weekend, and are planning to go on a couple of day-trips out of town, to unwind and forget about everything that needs to be done for a few days. Then Monday I start work, and the pressure to find a place to live will really be on.

wish us luck. And if you happen to know of a two-bedroom apartment in a nice neighborhood in central Dublin, walking distance to my office, with a good shower, and preferably with a grocery store and running trails nearby, please do let me know. Not that I'm particular or anything.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

And another adventure begins

We have moved to Ireland. We are still a little bit in shock. Fortunately, everything went pretty smoothly with the trip here - the boys slept most of the flight from Nairoble to Amsterdam, there were no issues at all with immigration coming into Ireland, all our bags showed up, and there was even a humongous van waiting at the taxi stand when we got out there.

The only complications were when an older American man hassled us for going around to the front of the line to board (with our two small, wailing children, of course). I resisted the urge to tell him to stuff it. And Aer Lingus made us check one of our carry-ons, even though we were well within the limit. I tried to explain that Milo gets the exact same allowances I get - as he pays almost full price - but math was apparently not her strong suit. Anyway, I didn't mind having the load off. We keep saying this, but we are really going to have to learn to pack lighter next time.

Ireland is all a bit overwhelming still. It's hard to overcome the urge to splurge and indulge in everything. "Look - shawarma! No wait, there's sushi! And burritos! Can we have some ice cream?" I even found myself thinking about getting a McDonald's sundae today, because, you know, they don't have those in Malawi. I keep having to remind myself that we are staing here, and there will be plenty of time to eat the foods I like, buy new clothes, go to the movies.

Jorge is having the opposite reaction - he's finding everything a little overstimulating, and just wants to eat bread and cheese in the hotel room.

I know it never really takes us long to adjust, but I think we have been permanently changed by the years we spent living in Africa. It is hard for me to ever imagine a time when spending 600 dollars on a telephone will make any sense. And I think I will always crave for my children the freedom they have gotten used to. My saddest moment so far was getting down to Milo eye-to-eye and having to explain to him "We are not in Malawi anymore - you have to stay with Mommy now, you can't run around whenever you want to."

We went to several parks today, and as he always does, Milo tried to make friends with the other kids. They pretty much ignored him, the same way they did in Seattle -something I found very difficult to understand. But I saw a little spark of interest in some of the kids, as if they were wistfully considering socializing with another child, and that gave me a little hope that Milo will indeed make some friends here.

Our next big job is to find an apartment. A friend very generously offered us her apartment while she travels to Somalia for work, but the clock is ticking - we've got 3 weeks at the most to find and move into a new place. We're OK with something small, even a little dingy, but there is one thing I won't sacrifice, and that is a good shower. So it may take a while...

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Big news. Sad, but big.

Malawi has been our home for so long, I’ve forgotten that the nature of my job is more in the moving than the staying. In fact, when I was younger, I scoffed at the idea of staying put more than a year or two in any given place. I was born to roam, baby.

Now that I’m older, more maternal, and quite frankly, a little boring, I don’t see the point in being anywhere less than three years. What can you really accomplish in a year? Two? That’s just enough time to figure out what you’re doing, then you have to start all over again.

The norm, however, seems to be two to three years for most of my friends and colleagues, though. Which means that a couple of years ago, we went through one big endless year of farewell parties as most of our close friends moved on. Now, after 5 years in Malawi, the second wave is beginning.

And it seems, my friends, the tide is taking us out with it. In just one week, we are leaving Malawi.

My heart breaks just a little bit even writing those words.

We knew we would be leaving soon. I had extended my contract through the end of the year, but my feet have gotten itchy again, and it’s too hard to see everyone else leave and feel like we’re being left behind. So we made a conscious decision, come what may, we would be leaving Malawi by the end of the year, even if that meant moving back home to the U.S. to mooch off of our families.

As it turns out, we’re not having to couch-surf just yet. One of our senior advisers is out on maternity leave, and she asked if I would cover for her during the 7 months she will be out of work. I agreed, and so next week we are moving to Dublin (that’s Ireland, in case you were expecting yet another remote developing country).

Ireland. I know, right? How totally different can you get from Malawi (apart from Finland)? We’re expecting a total and completely new way of life, but that’s part of the excitement. After all, how much longer do we have that we can still traipse off to Europe for a few months if we want to?

I guess you can expect a whole new class of misadventures from us as we navigate immigration, find a place to live, and apparently the hardest thing, open a bank account. These may sound like menial tasks, but they scare the bajeezus out of me. I’m pretty sure I can’t just smile my way into getting a driver’s license in Europe, the way I can here.

Wish us luck as we make this big leap, friends. I will try to keep you up to date on this newest adventure in our lives.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Quiet now

I just thought I would pop on and let you all know that things have settled down here in Malawi, at least for now. After two days at home I got incredibly stir-crazy, and convinced my office to let me go out to the field on Friday, and it was as calm as you could ever imagine. All the supposed damage to the city center had never happened, and while everyone seemed a little more tense than usual, I never felt in any danger. So it seems that at least some of the news reports were overblown. Never again will I turn to twitter for news!

What is clear, though, is that 18 people lost their lives during the two days of unrest, and that is a horrible, shocking tragedy. Lots of fingers have been pointed, but no one has taken any responsibility. In the cities, at least, the protests seem to have had the effect that people are even more frustrated now.

In the meantime, things have gotten back to normal. Which means no fuel at the filling stations, regular black-outs, and high prices on everything from tomatoes to tires.

For us, we are just looking forward to the arrival of my dad tomorrow, who is coming for a two-week visit. And then beyond that, trying to figure out where we go now, as it looks like we have officially, finally, and somewhat reluctantly decided that I will leave my current job at the end of this year. We have been here five years, and given all the difficulties of life lately, and all the friends who have already left before us, it is finally starting to feel like enough.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Another day

Well, it’s the end of yet another tense day here in Lilongwe. Again, the city basically shut down, due to the ongoing protests, which have now seemingly collapsed into anarchy. All of my meetings were again canceled today, so it was basically a snow day for all of us. I didn’t get much done, as Jorge and I kept checking the updates on Twitter. We worried for some young friends who had been traveling around Malawi and Tanzania, and who were supposed to be on a bus back to the city. I wondered how we were going to get food for the week, with the market shut down, and the gorcery stores reportedly looted. I worried about the violence and chaos coming closer to home, closer to my babies.

To deal with the anxiety, I baked cookies. And then ate LOTS of them.

Then, sometime after my lunch of cookies, I had this strange sense of déjà vu. I have dealt with perilous situations before – my time in Darfur was basically one crisis after another. So at first I thought all this conflict was bringing back memories of difficult times I had experienced in Sudan.

But then I realized, it wasn’t a conflict I was remembering, it was a catastrophe of an entirely different sort: Hurricane Katrina.

In the days and weeks after I evacuated from New Orleans in 2005, it was so hard to tell the fact from rumor. Who can forget the melodramatic interviews on Oprah, the (eventually disproved) tales of babies being sexually assaulted in the Superdome? And every horrible misdeed that was reported was just taken as truth, because of course, that’s what people’s stereotypes of New Orleans residents allowed them to believe.

And here we are again, imagining violent Africans wielding machetes and wreaking havoc…after years of being shown Africa only in the light of famine or war, is it any wonder that we don’t even doubt that people are capable of such violence?

Once the dust clears, I wonder what I will find – the battleground of burned-out cars and smashed, looted buildings that the reports have been evoking; or the ghost-town, shell of a city where most people just want to keep their heads down and get back to their normal life – the vision that my friends who have been in town today tell me they’ve seen. I hope it’s the latter, but by now I just don’t know what to believe.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Day of Protest

I have lived in Malawi for 5 year now, and not once have I ever known the people to rise up in angry protest. Sure, there are editorials written, the occasional march held, but generally Malawians have always seemed a peaceful lot. They take pride in the fact that Malawi, a rarity in sub-Saharan Africa, has never experienced true violent conflict.

So when I was told by the organization that I work for that all transportation within the country would be suspended today, due to planned protests over the ongoing fuel crisis and other governance issues, I was a little skeptical.

It all seemed like a big over-reaction. A coworker stopped by my desk yesterday to make sure I knew to be careful getting to and from work. “It might be quieter where you are, because of the presidential house being there,” he speculated (I live across the street from a guest house where dignitaries are housed during official visits). “But then again, that might be where they launch the counter-attack.”

Excuse me?! Counter-attack? Those are words I never thought I would hear in Malawi.

Still, I wasn’t really concerned. After all, I was told to stay home on the day of the presidential election as well (I didn’t), and that ended up being the quietest, most peaceful day I have ever experienced in Africa.

But today feels different.

I happen to also live very close to a police station. When I got up this morning, I could hear them practicing - the occasional test message over a bullhorn, short blasts of sirens punctuating the usual morning calm. It was like they were just warming up for the mayhem to come.

I arrived at the office; still more quiet. But people seem on edge. There is a constant background chatter of radios quietly tuned to the news, and when I go in to the staff break room, people look up at me as if I have interrupted some important discussion. Everything is closed in town, and all the usual meetings and work trips postponed. Many of my co-workers just stayed home, and other organizations didn’t even bother opening.

Occasionally I ask for updates – a government office has been burned in Mzuzu, I’m told; the streets around the market are chaos, tear gas has been released. I made my first-ever foray to Twitter today, looking for news, and was surprised to hear numerous reports of looting and fires, although not violence, thank goodness. It’s hard to sort out the facts from the rumors. But what seems to be clear is that some important corner has been turned here in Malawi.

Most likely things will return to business as usual tomorrow, as the damage is assessed and people get back to their usual lives of just trying to survive in a country where there are few jobs, and wages are low, but costs are high. But the seed has been planted. People will wake up, remember that they took the chance to speak out, that they raised their voices against the problems they have seen, and realize that the world did not fall apart. And just maybe they’ll decide to do it again. We’ll see.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Coming up Short

The order of the day in Malawi is shortages. It seems just about everything is running low these days – fuel, electricity, forex, drugs…A friend recently saw a news story in the local paper bemoaning the “shortage of models,” which is apparently crippling Malawi’s fashion industry. Half the time, we don’t even have powdered milk for our tea in my office. Life is certainly more difficult these days.

Of course, there’s also my critical shortage of time. And the shortage of words to describe just how insanely busy I have been. Swamped. Overwhelmed. Engaged. Occupied. You see? I have run out already.

But today I’ll try to squeeze out a few words in between bits of my hastily eaten lunch, banking on the likelihood that my 2:00 meeting will be late.

Of course, of all the shortages in Malawi, the biggest news is probably the fuel shortages. For weeks now, there just has not been enough fuel in the gas stations. At any given time, only a handful of stations will have fuel. You can tell which ones these are by the lines of cars stretching in every direction trying to get in, or the rush of people jostling with their jerry cans. The other stations sit empty, traffic cones placed in front of the pumps to indicate that they are dry yet again.

Of course, the fuel shortage is not just annoying for commuters, it is dangerous to the economy. I heard that at one point, even the fuel tankers were running out of gas, unable to make it back to the port in Mozambique to resupply. Naturally, a booming black market trade has sprung up for those who don’t have the time or patience to spend 6 hours waiting in line. The last few times we had major fuel shortages, the government blamed Mozambique for having problems at their port (oddly enough, though, Mozambique itself seemed to have plenty of fuel. Hmmmm.) Now, apparently, the problem is that the government has created sooooo much prosperity through its canny economic choices, that the fuel suppliers can’t keep up with the demand created by all the newly rich Malawians buying new cars.

As for us, we’re no longer so concerned about running out of fuel – Jorge unexpectedly sold our car on my birthday this Monday. In the morning, I had a car. I come home from work, no car.

Huh. I guess that’s one way to deal with the problem of the worn-out clutch and the bald tires we needed to replace. Kind of genius, actually.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Luwawa Bike Race

Now for a little time traveling, as we jump ahead six months from Dean's birth to this past weekend...

Yesterday Jorge raced in the Luwawa International Bike Race, an annual mountain-biking event that takes place a few hours north of Lilongwe on the Viphya Plateau, a wooded highlands. It was our first time to Luwawa, and I was looking forward to a bit of peace and quiet in the forest. What I got was quite different - noise, hyper-active children, and not enough sleep...the story of my life these days.

The race itself was extremely well-organized, and Jorge had a great time. He came in solidly right in the middle of the pack, which was fine with him, as his training for the 30-mile race had consisted of a couple of weekend treks through the maize fields behind our block (those of you have read about many of Jorge's past sporting exploits will not be surprised at his willingness to take on extreme feats of athleticism the way other people agree to an evening stroll).

When Jorge heard I was blogging about the race, he wanted me to make sure you all know what a hero he was, as well. There were many stretches of the course that were too steep to ride, and the racers had to push their bikes up the steep hills. Jorge, being the tireless runner that he is, figured he could make up some time be simply throwing his bike over his shoulder, and jogging up the hill. Halfway up one long stretch, he came across a woman who was struggling to get her heavy load up the hill. So he picked up her bike as well, and carried it to the top. My husband is such a gentleman.

Of course, he also apparently bit it so bad at one point that he ended up doing a flying somersault into the woods, where, in his words, he left a perfect "snow angel" impression in the bushes. So it wasn't all "Lawrence of Arabia" sophistication in the wilds of Africa.

Milo also had a great time. As he always does, he made some new friends about 3 minutes after walking through the door, and spent the weekend racing around on his bike and running off into the bush.

Hey look - even I was there! Here's photographic evidence!

The Lodge that hosted the race was packed full, and after the race, they organized an evening of local and international music acts. Which would have been really exciting, back in the days before I had two small children. As it was, I spent last night with a pillow over my head, willing the band to stop playing so that I could get at least 30 minutes of sleep before Dean started his nightly routine of waking up every 3 hours (alas, I only got 10 minutes of sleep before I had to get back up).

This morning, our friend Peter, who has been going to Luwawa for years, took us on a hike through the beautiful countryside. Milo loved it, and wanted to collect one of every wildflower he saw.

Of course, now I'm exhausted, but in one of those good, fulfilled ways. Still, I'm really hoping our next trip involves just a bit more sleep, and hopefully a lot more lazing around on the beach doing nothing!

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Meet Baby Dean

Finally! The really exciting part of our trip back home to the United States! When last I left you, I was enjoying (OK, tolerating) the Thansgiving snow in Seattle. A week later, on November 30th, I got a call from my best friend Mary to tell me she'd had her son that day, a little boy named Lucas. I was 39 weeks pregnant, and for the first time, felt a little jealous. Normally I am COOL with waiting a little longer for a baby - I know all about the lack of sleep, the challenge of finding time to shower, the fact that you have a big lump in your arms (or at your breast) constantly. I'm not bamboozled by that whole cuddly newborn imagery they're pushing over there in Hollywood. I'd like my last few days of sleep, please.

But all of sudden, I wanted to have that darn baby. And what do you know? An hour later my water broke. Labor started soon after, and after just 14 hours I had Dean. He was born at 11:15 AM on December 1st, weighing 8 pounds, 5 ounces.

Dean's birth was a bit of a triumph for me. Milo was born via Cesarean 2 years earlier, after his heart seemed to not be able to withstand the pushing phase. But, ever a public health professional, I really wanted to avoid surgery this time unless it was strictly necessary. I can't say Dean's labor was quick or easy - I pushed for more than 4 hours - but thankfully I had an awesome, supportive midwife who really believed that I could do it. And thanks in large part to her encouragement, I just kept trying. And then all of a sudden, he was born, and Jorge told me, "it's another boy!" and then Dean had to be rushed off to the pediatrician because he needed resuscitation. Minutes later, though, he was doing just fine, and was sleeping on my chest.

It hasn't been so hard adjusting to life as a family of four. Everything takes about five times more planning, but we've learned to adapt. Milo adores his little brother (when he slows down enough to pay him any mind), and Dean is delighted to just be in Milo's presence.

As for Dean (who, like Milo, remained nameless for the first few days of life, while the anxious nurses kept nagging for a name to put on his birth certificate request), you've never met a more steady, mellow child. His first few weeks of life, he never cried - he just squeaked. Even now, he is usually easily consoled, and rarely gets particularly upset over anything. He's mostly content to just watch the world around him and smile.

And, most remarkable of all, my little Colombian baby came out with a head full of golden blonde hair, and my blue eyes to match!

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Milo's first snow

It's the weekend in Lilongwe and that means lots of just hanging out with friends. I'm on my own tonight, as Jorge has gone out to watch some soccer game which is apparently a Very Big Deal. Milo just called me up to his room handed me a book about the rainforest which apparently was giving him the heebie-jeebies and told me "I want it go downstairs." Now that the scary frog is taken care of, I'm hoping both boys just go to sleep and stay asleep. My little guys are growing up so fast...

But that's a post for another day. I'm continuing with the flashback posts for now.

So shortly after we arrived back in Seattle intact (but only after the immigration department decided to hold us for an hour and put the fear of God, or at least the government, back into Jorge once again) we flew down to Los Angeles to visit my grandfather who had been ill. Milo got to trick-or-treat for the first time, and boy, was he sold on that concept.

And then in no time at all it was Thanksgiving. Just before the holiday, a big snow hit Seattle.

First off, let me just say that I have not been a fan of the snow since I was 8 years old and schools got shut down for 2 weeks after a big storm. That was really the last time it was fun. Since then, I've just found snow to be cold, wet, slippery, and terribly inconvenient. My childhood home is down at the bottom of a very big hill - there's no way to get out without going uphill. So once it snows, you're stuck. And being about as big as a whale by this time, I wasn't exactly going for any 3 mile walks through the snow to get to the shops.

However, making lemonade out of these lemons, I thought it would at least be great fun for Milo. I was wrong. we took him outside, he looked around, asked to get into his stroller, then never got back out. Here he is, hiding under a blanket.

My hubby, on the other hand, loves the snow, having only experienced it a handful of times in his whole life. So he took us around on a Siberian gulag march, throwing snowballs and refusing to let us go home until he was satisfied we had thoroughly experienced the snow. Then Milo and I holed ourselves up inside the house playing Wii and trying not to go stir-crazy for the rest of the week.

So there you have it - a post about snow just in time for summer to start! But it's heading into winter here in Malawi - I may even need to throw on a cardigan occasionally. So I am thankful for the experience, for reminding me that truly belong somewhere close to the equator, and I think Milo would agree.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Still here

Thought I disappeared, didn't you? Well, I'm still around.

So, we went to Seattle for 6 months. And to Mardi Gras in New Orleans. And some other stuff happened. and now we are back home in Malawi, in our little (palatial) flat in Lilongwe, getting used to being back to "normal" life.

I thought about doing a big long "what I did on my 6-month vacation" post, but A. that would be much too much work, and B. who would want to read that?

So instead, I'll start at the beginning. Waaaay back to last October, when Jorge and I loaded up 6 bags, 1 stroller, 1 carseat, and a fidgety toddler into a taxi and took off for the US. But on the way, we made a little pit stop in Paris. Not bad, eh?

So first things first, if you ever get a chance to take an international Air France flight, keep in mind that when everyone else has gone to sleep, they have free Haagen Dasz ice cream bars in the flight attendants' galley, just there for the taking. Jorge ate 7. I'm dead serious.

We had a lovely time, despite the riots and strikes. We were warned that the museums would likely be closed, the trains wouldn't run, the shops would be closed, but in fact, everything went pretty well. The ticket takers for the train to Versailles refused to take our money in silent protest of the French government's decision to raise the retirement age, so we got to ride for free.

We spent much of our time visiting the many museums of Paris.

We took Milo to see the Venus de Milo, but he was unimpressed.

We also took many long walks through the city, until my poor pregnant hips couldn't take much more.

One day we took the train out to Disneyland Paris, where Milo was struck dumb by the sight of Mickey Mouse live and in the flesh.

And it being one of OUR vacations, it was impossible to leave the country without mishap, of course.

We rented a tiny little closet of an apartment for the week, up on the 4th floor, with no elevator. Did I mention the 6 bags, packed to the maximum weight allowance? On our last day, we booked a taxi to collect us at 5AM to take us to the airport. Piece by piece, we shuttled the bags down to the curb. We had to leave the keys inside the apartment, so to make sure we didn't accidentally take them with us, we left the apartment wide open, the keys on the counter, as we loaded up the taxi. Finally, with only Milo's car seat still waiting in the apartment, Jorge handed me the backpack that was propping the building door open so that I could load it up.

The only problem? He was standing outside the building, not inside. In slow motion, I yelled "nooooooo"....and we both watched the door close, locking us outside.

I would have admitted defeat. But not Jorge. No, my husband's a problem solver. He recruited the mortified taxi driver to translate for him, and then he pressed every.single.doorbell for all the apartments in the building. Until finally, a rather peeved and disheveled French woman answered. After looking out the window and determining that yes indeed, we were stupid American tourists and not creative burglars, she buzzed us in. And we made it to the airport in time after all, on our way back to the U.S.