Saturday, May 30, 2009

there's something magic about

This afternoon I crowded in with hundreds of daily commuters to take the ferry across the Bosphoros, from Europe to Asia. Then, an hour later, back to Europe again. It's a fifteen minute ride on a good sized but bare bones boat. Thousands and thousands of Turks do this trip at least once a day, since the river cuts the city right in half. Maybe you live in Europe and work in Asia. Maybe you live in Asia and work in Europe.

For me, of course, this was a monumental pair of quarter-hours in my life. The bright and penetrating blue river, chopped into white pieces by the rudder of my ferry. The wind and the sun on my face just long enough to feel revived but not long enough to get burnt. Hopping back and forth between continents. I've been to Istanbul before, and I've done the ferry trip before, but I couldn't wait for the chance to do it again.

What fascinated me, though, was that all those commuters seemed to be just as enthralled as me. We all crowded the gates to get onto the ferry, then people ran - yes, RAN - to get the outdoor seats overlooking the river. Guys climbed up on the rails to sit right over the splashes of water spewed up by the engine, children stood peering through the rails with their hands gripping the iron tightly, and friends crowded together on the benches that lined the sides of the boat. All faces seemed to be overcome by a look of wonderment.

How can it be that something so beautiful really doesn't ever get old?

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Twide and Twejudice

Apologies for my silence the last several weeks, I've been carried away by the flood of work! But today I had a little while to catch up on my blog reading, and from my favourite blog, today, I got the funniest link ever: Pride and Prejudice in the Twittersphere

If your sense of humour is at all like mine, you must read to the end, you'll laugh all the way!

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Portrait #83: Driving in Kosovo

I had a lot of good ideas of people to portrait this week, but they have all been erased by the stress of the last three hours, driving back to town after a day in the field. Since the logistics man at our office seems to have become personal driver to myself and my assessment teams, I suggested that everyone in the office would breathe easier if they just let me drive. So I did the World Vision driving test and had the mayor or someone sign a sheet of paper, and am now zipping along...

...and getting myself summarily frustrated. Driving through the mountains I got stuck in a typical "turtle race" - sharing the roads with a number of big slow trucks. Everyone around me kept passing me and entering the space between myself and the truck in front of me. As if I were the one keeping them back. So I realised I needed to do some passing as well or else I'd never make my destination because of all the cars pushing me further back down the road. We got nowhere any faster, just did more dangerous passing.

Then I got pulled over by a kindly gentleman of a cop for not having my headlights on when the sun was shining. Not a cloud in the sky. No one told me about that law. Good thing I'm a foreigner and a girl and was driving a clearly-marked NGO vehicle.

Next, I got stuck in a traffic jam during which we moved not an inch for fifteen minutes, then slowly made our way through a busy intersection. Then it was over. Not sure what that was about.

But none of that really bothered me. I was fine until we got back into town. Kosovo has a dangerous combination of ruthless drivers and pedestrians who expect vehicles to stop for them at crosswalks. I appreciate cars stopping for people in crosswalks, but not when half the cars stop and the other half zooms through. I did a lot of slamming on the breaks: I'd be driving along at normal speed and then all of a sudden a pedestrian would appear in front of the car next to me. Usually at crosswalks, but not always.

Or there was the time I was in a right-turn only lane, with a dedicated light to right turns. So I pulled slowly forward and almost ran over a pedestrian, who stared at me angrily, pointing out that he too had a green light for crossing the street!

Another good moment was when the car behind me started honking madly, just after I'd pulled into the stream of moving traffic - on a small residential street. I thought my light was out or my door was open, so I slowed down and looked back. He kept honking and tapping his left wrist with his right hand. I asked a taxi driver lingering nearby what that meant. He shrugged. So I glanced back to ask him, and he looked really angry. He slammed the gas pedal and zipped around me. Apparently all that honking had been because I was going slower than he wanted. Oops on him - I just slowed even more!

My wits ended, though, when I went through an intersection in the right lane, marked with arrows for straight or right-turn. So I went straight, and - of course - there was a crosswalk right after the intersection. And people in the crosswalk. So I stopped in the small space between the crossroad and the crosswalk. So... the big enormous white SUV to my left almost drove right into me. Not only did the driver of that vehicle think she had the right to move straight into my space in the right lane, but she also could care less about those particular pedestrians.


Friday, May 1, 2009

Scenario #25: Please, ma'am, all I want is some bread!

I'm sitting in a café writing. The café has a large beautiful window looking out on a somewhat busy road. In fact, this establishment is more of a porch than a room in its own right.

Two girls just came in through the rickety glass door and walked up to me, currently the only patron. They both had golden dyed hair and wore dirty dresses and brown jackets. The first was very small, five years old perhaps? The second one could have been ten or twelve.

The little girl came up to me, leaned her left arm on my purse and computer case, and reached out her right hand to me, palm held up. She mumbled something very quietly, probably in Albanian so I wouldn't have understood even if she had spoken clearly. I've been told that I shouldn't engage beggars here in conversation, and that it's not rude here to ignore them. So I looked at her and shook my head no, ever so briefly, and went back to my typing.

She left, and two minutes later the older girl entered. She leaned her body over my purse and computer case and her upturned hand was practically in my face. With her left hand she gestured to her mouth while she nodded her head toward the food counter. Clearly she wanted me to buy her a muffin or some cake. How could I say no? But I did. And she insisted. And I dutifully kept staring at my screen, feeling like Scrooge's evil stepsister.

Two little boys have already been by begging since I've been sitting here, and I see a few other kids out on the street. If I start saying yes, where will that rabbit trail end?

But there was another reason I said no.

The second girl insisted and insisted, but she finally gave up. So she walked straight up to the shopkeeper and asked him for some food. He gave it to her. While she was waiting for her muffin, the younger girl came back, with a friend. They stood by the door waiting, then the three left together.

Just yesterday I sat in a meeting about organised crime here in Kosovo and child labour. These children were probably Roma (gypsy) children, and are probably under obligation to report back to their employer on their gains for the day. They are a gang of babies working for a gang of big scary dudes. I just can't find it in myself to participate in that process in any way.

But who does that to a child? Who can make a five year old and a ten year old spend their days on the streets begging? Who makes sure they are dirty and hungry? As awful as I felt denying them their simple request for some bread, it is still beyond the pales of my imagination to conceive of someone who forces them to beg and beats them and sexually abuses them... yes, there are reports - lots of them - that these things happen. How can a person live with him/herself and do these things?

What hope is there for those children, essentially no different from the two sisters dressed in matching pink outfits who just skipped by the café, with their loving parents following arm-in-arm?