Friday, June 22, 2012

Back in the saddle

I'm writing today from Juba, South Sudan. I'm not sure what this brings me to in my "countries visited" count, but I'm pretty sure I'm now up into the 40s.

I was a bit anxious about coming here at first, with the news of recent clashes near the border and growing tensions with the North, but I've actually found it to be very quiet and calm. The only moment that made me a bit nervous was one day when I was sitting in the car in a busy trading center, and the driver wandered off to go to the market. The car ended up being surrounded by skinny, adolescent streetkids, some of whom were openly sniffing glue, which broke my heart. They peered into the car, wondering what their chances of snatching a purse might be, until the driver returned and chased them off.

I spent 9 days in our compound in a fairly remote region in the North of the country. Most of the esnior-level staff live in the same compound as the office, and it's amazing the investments that have gone into making the living arrangements comfortable enough to entice people to stay a couple years. There was reasonably fast internet, flushing toilets, and ceiling fans in the tukuls (huts, but really more like little thatched cottages) that even ran through the night.

Now, if only they could have gotten rid of the bugs and 100-degree temperatures, it would have been great.

Oh, and speaking of the bugs. I mean, the BUGS. Oy vey. I sometimes wonder how I managed to get myself into a career where exposure to enormous, creepy, insects is just a hazard of the job. There were beetles the size of my hand, quick little spiders that jumped, and flying termites that would land in your hair. I actually cut myself with my own fingernail trying to get a flying cockroach out of my hair one night. [shudder]. Using the bathroom was an exercise in efficiency, getting in and out before something could move and freak me out.

The Sudanese staff, on the other hand, were not bothered by the bugs - in fact, they were very excited about the emergence of the termites, and one night they collected buckets of them to make little crispy, fried, bug snacks.

I also had the misfortune pleasure of being introduced to the African version of American Idol, with contestants from across East Africa. I may have permanent ear damage. But on one lucky evening, they decided to put on a movie instead of the singing show, a Nigerian soap opera, or football. And let me just tell you that Jurassic Park is an awesome movie to start with, but until you've watched it with a room full of South Sudanese who have never seen the film before, you have not truly experienced it. Priceless.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

For over a month now, I was beginning to think we'd been completely bamboozled. I mean, I knew the weather in Ireland would suck, but I really didn't expect to still need a winter coat, gloves, and a scarf to go out to get lunch at the end of May (and I still felt cold even under all those layers). And yet, every store at the mall was stocked with skimpy sundresses and beach-wear. Really, it felt like a big hoax. There was even hail. 

But then, when we were just beginning to believe that there is, in fact, only one season in Ireland, and its name is Cold, the sun came out. It began to heat up. Almost overnight, it went from winter, to, well, a warm Spring, if not a mild Summer.

And apparently, the entire city of Dublin has lost its ever-loving mind.

Everywhere you go, there are women in tank tops and short shorts. Every patch of available green space in the city is crowded full of people sitting in the sun. Everyone at the office keeps smiling at me. Jorge just went into town at 8 tonight and said it's like Mardi Gras out there - every pub full, the streets packed with people, the parks full of revelers drinking beer.

It's pretty clear that people don't expect this nice weather to last long - or else, why would they be living each day as if it were their last? I'm happy at least that the Irish women will at least get to wear their inappropriately revealing new clothing once before having to consign it away for the season. Come the weekend, we'll be joining the throng as well, I'm sure. After all, I'm sure by the time June arrives it will be 50 degrees and raining again.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Dean's first haircut

A few weeks ago, I finally talked Jorge into letting me take Dean to get his hair cut. Jorge has a thing about the boys' hair; he seems to think they are little Samsons (Samsonites?), and that their power is in their hair. Also, Jorge refuses to let a woman cut their hair, because, according to him, if the hairdresser happens to be pregnant, the boys' hair will be ruined. He will tell you his own tragic tale, of the thick, luxurious wavy locks that were magically transformed into tight little wiry coils, all because his mother took him to have his hair cut at a woman's salon instead of a barber shop.

But my mother-in-law Dora and I put the full-court press on him, and he relented. On one condition - he got to pick the place.

We went to Doran's, a barber shop just up the street, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.

It was a fittingly manly place, and also charmingly Irish, with a handful of men sitting around on benches just chatting. Everyone was very excited to see Dean experiencing the coming-of-age ritual, and quietly taking bets as to whether or not he'd cry.

I'm proud to say he did just great, not a tear, or a cry, and certainly not the agonized writhing that Milo used to whip out on such occasions.

I have to admit, I have been clinging to Dean's baby-hood much longer than I did with Milo. and it's always a little bittersweet to see your baby's little locks go, but now he looks so much more like the little boy he is becoming. My handsome little guy.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Things that are strange here

In many ways, I'm experiencing far more culture shock moving to Europe than I ever did moving to Africa. I often find myself saying to Jorge or Milo, when explaining why we can't do something they suggest, "This isn't Africa, OK? People are weird here." (Come to think of it, that was a frequent phrase while we were in Seattle as well. But not New Orleans. Hmmm.)

So, here's a short list of some of the things I just find strange:

  • There are computer repair shops and internet cafes, and there are many of them. I thought those sorts of compaines went out of business in the Western world ages ago.

  • We had out first parent-teacher meeting with Milo's preschool last week. His report said "Milo is enthusiastic in making friends. Hopefully that will improve in time."

  • Movie theater seats are assigned, and if you decide that you do not in fact want to sit in one tiny cluster of people, while the rest of the theater sits empty, you will be reprimanded.

  • However, if you nearly run over someone, blatantly litter on the street, or start fighting while walking home from school, everyone will look away and pretend that you don't exist.

  • Although unemployment is at an all-time high and wages have been stagnant for years, everyone still seems to have enough money to drop $1,000 dollars on a stroller.

  • The government pays you for having children. You just have to pop out kids, and voila, 200 dollars in your bank account each month, for every child.

  • You cannot buy rubbing alcohol at the drug store without a prescription.

  • Restaurants somehow get away with charging 25 dollars for a cheeseburger, plate of pasta, or pizza - and yet remain full of customers.

Now, this isn't to say that people here aren't lovely, and for the most part quite friendly, but it's still all so very different. I think it will be a long time before we stop feeling like complete and utter foreigners here, despite the fact that, for the first time in half a decade, we look like everyone else on the outside.

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.