Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Lessons learned from arranging a surprise for someone else

For Christmas, this year, on a whim, I discovered I could travel to the UK to spend the holiday with my parents. We had already agreed that we'd spend Christmas on different continents and that-was-that, so when I found out I could get the ticket to London, I didn't feel the need to inform them of my changed plans. It's a rare treat that such a surprise offers itself so conveniently.

I really didn't put much effort at all into planning the trip which lasted just under four days including travel time. But there was some temptation to soupe up the surprise, add some flair, some extra special moments. I wondered if it would be possible to connive a way to get them to a restaurant in central London where I could be waiting for them. Or perhaps ask my co-conspirator friends to create a diversion that landed them at the train station at the exact same time as I'd be coming off the train. But it was so easy to just make my own way to their house at a time I'd knew they'd be there (because my mother had already shared with me her plans for the holiday weekend, broken down by activity). So that is what I did. Nonetheless, with as little planning as I'd invested, the experience still taught me a thing or two:

- Simpler really is often the best. No tricks or games, just the surprise itself. My mother told the story of my arrival on her doorstep about a dozen times in the three days I was with her. I didn't really need to do any more than that.

- To surprise someone you need to know what they want. To surprise them with your own presence, it sure helps a lot to be absolutely confident of their love. This only really worked because I know my parents love me and are always happy to see me.

- Likewise, it helps to know them well. I could be confident that when my mother said she was serving dinner at 8 p.m. on Friday evening that meant the family would be home on Friday evening, barring a serious emergency. I know I can depend on them that way. (unlike myself – if anyone wants to surprise me, I will certainly be a moving target)

- My mother always says that she dislikes surprises, so I was worried she'd be upset I didn't let her know. But she didn't seem to mind. In fact, having the story to tell seemed compensate nicely for the preparation she normally would have done for my arrival. I don't think I like surprises either, but who knows maybe I actually do

- To get the ticket I used frequent flyer miles and with the miles I had to return business class. There's something about being treated as the elite, a smaller group of people with a curtain binding us together and separating us from everyone else, and knowing that we're the elite... that just added a bit of confidence and spring to my steps yesterday as I dealt with security, immigration and other officers paid to stall us.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

posting thoughts from Christmas Eve

Seeing people
watching people
entire cultures of... people

An hour and a half on the train passes so quickly, especially when there are many other passengers, and especially when it is Christmas Eve and all are travelling in family

A couple of hours in a Beiruti mall are also fascinating times during Christmas season, when everyone has a little bit of a chance to let loose, just a little bit

Yesterday a Beiruti mall
Today an English train

Families out and about, going to and from fun things, similar in so many ways but intimately different

On the surface, the colours. The train is so bright: white, sky blue, red, pink, purple, green and yellow are just a few of the colours in one quick glance about me. The Mall was a rather pure, unquestioning matching up of brown and black. Sure, there were other colours, just not many.

But the lights, oh the lights! In Beirut we saw little Christmas lights everywhere, here and around. Creating shapes of sleighs, angels and bells. The lights were white and blue and yellow. The Christmas lights were contrasted against green and purple spotlights. No effort was spared on a dazzling display of beauty in Beirut. Meanwhile, the Christmas decorations in this Christmasyest of most Christmasy countries are sparse and spare.

What tells me the most, though, are the people. In front of me, an immigrant woman speaking a combination of English and her native tongue, travelling with her university-aged daughter who speaks in a perfect London accent. They are talking about deep issues like inter-family marriage, and also catching up on family gossip and covering many topics in between. Across from them are four women. Or is it three women and a man? I'm really not sure what the gender is of the heavyset figure in white. But he, or she, seems to be a very kind and friendly person, a loving and entertaining mentor to the two young women perhaps better labeled 'girls' travelling with her – or him – and a motherly woman dressed in a blue sweater. Next up is a family of three: silent father, mentorly mother and engaged young-adult son.

In Beirut, there were families, sure. Everyone was there with family. Mothers chasing babies, big sisters taking little sisters shopping, fathers snapping photos of their sons on Santa's lap, couples staring at each other over coffeecups. But it was all staged, and much of it marked by a sense of the need to be a family and get it over with. Because this is what we do.

Perhaps I should have recorded the people more diligently in Beirut. The women's boots, in and of themselves, joined together to tell a fascinating story. Cowboy boots, hipster leather boots, kneehigh socks in plaid under boots, boots with leggings and boots with leg warmers, high high heel boots, flat boots with fuzzy tops and boots that looked like homemade knitting. How much time and energy went into the primping for the average Lebanese woman's afternoon doing some last-minute shopping at the mall? How much time did the women around me prepare for spending a day on the town in London or to take the train down to the south coast to be with family? Is it possible, just possible, that the women here used the time saved to save their love of just being with people? Or is it just because it's Christmas.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Starbucks cutie

As I sat typing away in Starbucks today, in a posture I've taken most days of my vacation this month, I was facing the serving counter.

I looked up to see a boy a little shorter than the counter, say just under three feet tall, walk in from the mall and march up to where the barista was serving a customer. If you are prone to giving Starbucks business, you know that in front of the cash register there is always a selection of candies and chocolates on offer. At this particular Starbucks the selection consisted of a variety of hard candies wrapped in Fall colours (red, orange, yellow), and a few candies wrapped in blue.

The boy reached up and pulled out a pretty blue-wrapped candy. Then we walked back out of the store.

The barista continued serving his grown-up client, never even noticing the boy's existence, much less that he walked up to the counter and shoplifted.

I couldn't bring myself to say anything, after all, the boy was too young to know that what he'd done was against the rules.

Immediately, though, the boy walked back in, ushered by his father. They went up to the barista who was just finishing with the other guy. The father explained what happened and paid, and then walked back out of the store with the little guy in tow.

With this little anecdote, I may be saying farewell for the holidays. Maybe, if I have something I need to say, I'll post. But most likely I'll be gone from here until 2011! Happy Christmas and an even Happier New Year!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Feeling Fear

I'm back in Starbucks across the street from the Sea. I just got cajoled into ordering a ridiculously overpriced Christmas drink: "toffee nut latte". It's nowhere near worth its price, but it does in fact taste Christmasy, somehow. And I suppose that's what one does on vacation - let oneself be cajoled into doing things we might not otherwise feel justified in doing. I often fear being taken advantage of, and fear is never good, so perhaps fighting the fear justifies my overpriced toffee nut latte.

Really, though, that's neither here nor there in the midst of the awe surrounding me. The last two days have seen the first major storm of the winter in Lebanon. The high mountains are now covered in snow. The low mountains where I'm staying were slippery with hail and frozen rain this morning. But I braved that fear to drive down to the city where things are just plain old wet.

And sit in the Starbucks across the street from the sea, which is as fear-inspiring a Biblical tales like Jonah and the Whale, or Paul's shipwreck on Cyprus - which was not far from here. The waves have already calmed down, but they're still spitting several metres into the air and showering the few leisure walkers on the corniche. I know they have calmed down because there's a stretch where the metal grating meant to protect pedestrians has been torn down by the sheer force of the water.

I think fear of the power of water is a healthy fear. It reminds us of the power of God. I want to be wise: for example, drive slowly on wet mountains and avoid swimming in the Mediterranean this week. I want to remember that God keeps me safe and has given me a warm bed and house and a car to drive so I don't get wet in the rain. And he's provided me with the luxury of access to Christmas drinks at Starbucks which make me feel like I'm in a theatre watching God's greatest show of waves yet.

On the horizon I see a brighter light. I think the storm is passing and peace is coming.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Feeling hunger

Lebanon has been a culinary joy. Christmas cookies coming out of my ears, complimented by good coffee, homecooked African food, homecooked Chinese food, labne and other Lebanese delights, and plenty more.

Though the food has been amazing, what has brought me to the next level of heaven has been the contrast with the life I left behind. In Sue Dan, the food is not bad, but it's not exciting either. We have cooks in our guesthouses who make an assortment of dishes, an intriguing combination of Sudanese, West African and East Asian cuisine - all represented to some extent in each dish. The same 5-10 dishes are repeated almost daily. Good food, but after a few months, not very exciting.

Here, the food is exciting and I've been eating as much as I can appropriately stomache. Sometimes my hunger is insatiable, and other times I've burnt out, feeling like the mere thought of food would sicken me.

What's really getting my hunger out of whack though, is the Food Channel! The last few nights, right around midnight, we have been watching the Food Channel. Two nights ago it was a special on the uses of vinegar: roast meat recipes and an intriguing salad in which parmesan is roasted onto a half a head of romaine lettuce then sprinkled on top with shaved frozen red-wine vinegar! (I know, seriously, didn't that make you feel hunger just now?) Last night it was a tour of the kitchens in various southern barbeque joints.

Watching the food channel just empties out my stomach. The hunger hits loud and strong and I just want to eat everything! (Remind me to NOT watch the Food Channel when in the Dar and can't access much of anything.)

As an aside, the other hunger I'm feeling is the hunger for writing. Such a strange feeling, and even stranger is the feeling of utter satisfaction after a productive session typing.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Feeling cold

I'm wearing long warm bottom parts and a cozy sweater. After the gym this afternoon - yes, the gym! complete with hot tub and sauna! - and a shower, my hair was wet. I got very chilled.

I'm sitting warming myself with the computer motor on my lap and barely over the chill after a hot thick-thick cup of hot chocolate.

It's nice feeling cold. That is, the kind of cold expressed in shivers, thick blankets, hot drinks, hot showers, and brittle wind on my cheeks. As opposed to the kind of cold expressed in unheated outdoor showers and brushing my teeth in the morning frost. So, at least for now, it's nice feeling cold.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Feeling beauty

You know your heart is worn down when you can't feel glory in beauty.

When I landed in Beirut, one of the first things I saw was white houses on a green-brown hill set against a sky as blue as a blue sky can be. There was a fire burning and plumes of smoke wafted up the hill.

When I drove out of the airport, I saw billboards and mad Mercedes, but I also saw more blue sky, blue as can be, and dark and deep. The traditional architecture of the older houses quickly came into view, and I whizzed past historical neighbourhoods alternating with metal and glass modernity.

When I came out of the last tunnel I was face-to-face with the Mediterranean. I drove along the seafront for a while, through heavy traffic both vehicular and pedestrian, and then I parked and continued on foot.

When I walked on the corniche, I stared out at rock formations set in the blue-black sea, bright blue sky above and hazy mountains in the distance. I passed a flurry of Beirutis ranging from shorts-and-tanktop gear to full-Muslim-abaya cover. The flurry was speckled with plenty of other nationalities as well.

When I ordered my coffee at Starbucks, I took a sip and felt like I'd returned home. Then I sat in a comfy chair with a view of the sea, sipping and reading and enjoying the blueness all at once.

When I arrived at my destination in the mountains, I took a seat on a bench overlooking the city and the sea beyond. I wrote in my journal and felt the chill of early-winter air on my face. Then I went for a walk and allowed the breeze to refresh my soul.

And only as I neared the end of my walk did I start to feel my the restorative power of beauty, a small hint of the glory of the sea and the sky and the blue and the white and the mountains and the people and the wind. May the beauty grow and overtake my entire being.

Even though my internet access is limited so I don't know if I'll get to read many other Imperfect blogs today, I still decided to link in with Emily's Imperfect Prose community. I'm thinking of you all!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

a really good quote

Why must people kneel down to pray? If I really wanted to pray I'll tell you what I'd do. I'd go out into a great big field all alone or into the deep, deep, woods, and I'd look up into the sky--up--up--up--into that lovely blue sky that looks as if there was no end to its blueness. And then I'd just feel a prayer.

Anne of Green Gables, by L.M. Montgomery
(chapter 7: Anne says her prayers)

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

avoiding bad things

A bit of thinking-on-paper today to share with Emily's Imperfect Prose on Thursdays

I'll go to just about any ends to avoid mice. Before I moved to the Dar, I'd heard more than enough horror stories of the little critters that terrorise the house where I live. Among the stories included blackness of droppings on bednets, rats making their home in someone's suitcase, and a bite on the toe of someone when sitting at her desk.

These stories almost convinced me not to come. I suppose it is a phobia, because if those things happened to me, I'm quite sure I'd curl into a little huddle in the corner and never actually do anything. But I was assured things had improved, and I told myself it was a stupid reason to stay away. Then I sucked in my breath, said a prayer, asked everyone I know to pray for me and the mice, then hopped on a plane.

I've been tremendously fortunate and must believe the prayer has done its job, because so far my bed is clean and my feet are in one piece. Nonetheless, I have gone to great lengths to protect myself - obsessively, you might say. My colleagues helped me out by filling a big black garbage bag with sand, which I put up against my door on the floor. This fills in the open crack of space through which little guys might sneak in to my room. One day I woke up and saw a gift left behind by a critter and mobilised more plastic sheeting protection for my room. I keep my blankets high on my bed, always sleep under covers even if it the heat is sweltering, only open my windows when I'm in the room and can monitor what goes in and out, play music so I won't hear any scratching, and wrap my food in plastic, burlap and more plastic before storing it. Yeah, I'm obsessed.

But it's worth it for the sense of security I feel. And that sense of security makes it possible for me to face each day's non-rodent-related challenges with gusto.

And, I'm well aware that if avoiding the rodents were truly my top priority in life, I would not have accepted this job in the first place: this job not only puts me in the line of little puttering feet, but it also subjects me to plenty of other potential awfulnesses that don't even make the news anymore because they've become repetitive.

Meanwhile, I've been thinking a great deal lately about risks that we take, and risks that we seem to think we can fully mitigate. And the price we pay for mitigating them.

I definitely lose time and a little bit of resources minimising the risk of rodent hazards. But I'd be an idiot to think I'm saving myself entirely. I know this, and I feel peace that I've hit my happy balance. My housemates doubtless think I go too far, but in my heart I know this is right for me.

Meanwhile, some of the other risk mitigation rules imposed on me do not feel like they are worth the price. For example, avoiding fraud in the workplace: call me twisted, but some of the fraud-mitigation rules seem to prohibit getting our work done. The only way to really ensure we will have no fraud is to shut down our office. So instead of creating all these inhibiting rules, why don't we just shut down?

Similarly, the several dozen signatures required to do any activity feel a little too obsessive. Lately I feel like I spend more time getting approvals than I spend doing stuff. The reason for this is to ensure that everyone understands and agrees with what we're doing. Fair enough. But if all these signatures mean we can't do it, maybe we should just plan not to do it from the start?

Then again, if I really wanted to avoid the mice, I should have just stayed home, right?

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

heart is breaking

For some reason today, I have been very sad today - it's a rather holy type of sadness, though, a deep feeling, in recognition of the fallenness that surrounds us.

At work, I think I am finally beginning to understand some of the reasons for the suffering that has set this region on what sometimes seems like an irreversible road of decay. I hope I'm wrong about the irreversible part, though!

Meanwhile, I am saddened by the fact that most people around me somehow seem to be unhappy. Or perhaps its my own sense of sadness that is making me see sadness even where there is none?

But what truly set my heart off, and nearly but not quite brought me to tears, was this link I saw on twitter via a friend:
(only visit it if your heart can take a bit of sadness. It is sad.)
http://www.boston.com/bigpicture/2010/11/rios_drug_war.html

What saddens me most is my own heart: to realise that I am not as shocked as I should be by those photos.

But some of them shocked me, and so I'm sharing them here so I can put a face to a little bit of my sadness today:
According to the caption, this is the home of a drug lord, in the favela (slum) - where he most likely came from before he made a fortune off of the suffering of others. He chooses to live in the land of squalor, as the king. I almost would have rathered he'd escape to a richer neighbourhood, instead of allowing such tragic juxtaposition.

According to the caption, this is a cocaine stash house. According to the writing on the wall, the Portuguese reader amongst us will recognise this as a church.

Gang soldier aiming his machine gun beyond an average guy walking on the street - seemingly oblivious to the fighting, can this be for real?! - at his target. Again, the juxtaposition
breaks.
my.
heart.b

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Inspiring!

Due to a little practical glitch -- a very little glitch, when you consider the myriad of things that could go wrong in this line of work in this particular location -- my colleagues were not able to go out and do their work today: they spent the whole day in the office.

Since most of them are new staff, we kept them busy by giving them a tour and introductions around the office, orientation to our project, showing them how to open their new work email, and the like. During these moments, I learned that half of my staff has no idea how to operate a computer. Good thing to know, I guess.

The team leaders took advantage of the time to do some planning with their individual teams, and I also did some planning with them. But there was still a good chunk of time when they were patiently waiting for the day to pass, waiting until the glitch was resolved and we could get on with our plans.

So they raided our bookshelf. I've amassed a humble collection of manuals and texts on quality development programming, social stuff and planning stuff.

Our junior team member is a 25 year old boy who looks 15. He just graduated from university and this is his first job. He's bright as a star and sharp as a pin, full of energy but also a quiet listener. He went to the shelf and found a manual for quality programming - it might be considered "the" textbook for my organisation. It's also a basis for all the work we're doing, although we've been giving the soundbites instead of burdening the staff with heavy-laden academic humble jumble. Especially since the manual is in English and my team speaks mostly Arabic.

But this boy, he sat down at a desk, opened the book, and cracked his notebook. Starting with the preface, he began to take detailed notes. For about an hour he pored over the book.

Then he called his supervisor over and started showing him what he was learning. The two of them studied the manual for another half an hour. Then they asked me if they could take it back to their field office with them. I said it was my only copy, but if they'd like I can print it out for them. They said yes and practically jumped for the printer. As soon as it was printing they handed me a USB flash drive and instructed me to give them a copy.

For the rest of the afternoon, they kept studying.

I love the motivation!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

thanksgiving blog

Facebook is great: for the last two days, friends have been posting updates of why they are thankful this year. I'm loving the reminder of thanksgiving, especially since I'm living in a part of the world where few people have ever heard of the holiday.

So... I shall now register my gratitude for

a loving and forgiving family that demonstrates the unconditional love of God
the cuteness of my nephew
skype so that I can see cute nephew
airplanes
my duvet
the flexibility that I've been forced to learn due to all the unexpected turns in my life
friends who pray
friends on skype
friends who email
lovely colleagues and housemates everywhere I've lived for the last few years
little trinkets that make my room feel more like home
my mac
an ereader
ceiling fans and a desert breeze
a job I love and the feeling of satisfaction that comes at the end of most days
a body that is capable of jogging and yoga
hands to type
a job that comes with R&Rs
the lovely people who I get to visit on R&R
coffee shops, especially those with iced coffee and a view of the sea
people who believe in me
colleagues who inspire me
the fact that rodents have hardly bothered me since my arrival in the Dar
facebook
blogging, including Imperfect Prose community
the opportunity to have learned Arabic and found a job in which I speak Arabic every day
spending most of my life absolutely spoiled by good food to eat
my stomach of steel
sunsets and the cool fresh air of the morning
living in a place that doesn't get too cold

I suppose there's a lot more, but I think at least once a week, if not once a day, a moment of gratitude for the things listed above crosses my mind. May I stop to truly embrace those moments.

Especially, I thank those of you indirectly mentioned above: friends, family, colleagues, loved ones near and far, for in so many ways continuing to provide the substance of my life even though I hardly every see you. (M/D/P/K, please thank D for me, since he can't read yet. I love you all.)

Thursday, November 25, 2010

imperfect prose: a repost

I don't suppose it's officially Christmas season yet, but I watched a re-run of a West Wing Christmas special the other day and it put me in the mood. So I've bursted out the holiday tunes.

One song in particular reminds me of a deep spiritual reality. It's a fun, upbeat song with a catchy tune. But the truth of it is a lesson that I hope I re-remember every single Christmas season for the rest of my life.

This post is where the truth behind the song hit home. It was a difficult season for me, but as usual, I learned so much through the challenges. If willing, please click over to the post and share this memory with me. I may repost it annually...

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

the cutest thing

Our guards coordinate across all our houses by radio:
"This is xxxx yyyy zzzz calling dddd cccc bbbb do you copy?"
"This is dddd cccc bbbb loud and clear OVER."
"Moving"
Then they switch channels and go on with their chat.

What makes this so cute is that these guys know all of about 11 words in English:
This
Is
Calling
Do
You
Copy
Loud
And
Clear
Over
Moving

And they just say it in the most adorable accent, as if they were singing along with a popular hit song that they'd sung along with the radio hundreds of times and didn't even notice anymore that the song is in a foreign language.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A cultural compass

I am an exceedingly culturally aware person. I don't say this to throw flowers on myself, because more often than not, this means that I second-guess and over-analyse the world around me.

Today was a big holiday in town and my colleagues and I went visiting co-workers and friends. As we were chatting with new acquaintances and doing our best to celebrate the local holiday in the best possible local-but-we're-not-locals way, I realised that my cultural compass is very different from theirs. My cultural compass represents several different cultures and is somewhat mobile, but it still points me in a direction of how I would describe "good" behaviour.

How does a person know which cultural compass to use?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

nightmare

I woke up last night around 2 a.m. in a cold sweat. The guards outside were fighting! Not just discussing or arguing, but they were in each others' faces and on the verge of coming to blows with each other. A dozen tall and skinny men dressed in their long white robes with their peaceful white caps and stubby beards which usually look so friendly, were glaring at each other, stomping and shouting.

And it was my fault.

I realised quickly that this was just the aftershocks of a bad dream, but I also remembered clearly the way they had got to blows. My team is training in how to learn from the communities where we work: how to do activities designed to get people to think about and explain their social structures, their history, their concerns. We want to know what has gone wrong in their past and how we can help them move beyond that. We want to help them build a better future for themselves. To do that, we need to be creative and resourceful, willing to discuss hard issues but in a way that is not intimidating.

In my dream, my team was practicing on the guards and they did a great job: one of the guards remembered some grudge that his grandfather had against the uncle of another guard. He mentioned it in a less-than-forgiving way, which evoked a provocative response. All too soon, the discussion got out of hand and our guards, who are usually so peaceful and kind, were fighting.

Instead of helping, thanks to me, we had made things worse.

I mentioned this to some colleagues today. One responded with flattery: it is a sign that I care. Another responded with practical wisdom: it's time for my vacation.

sharing this today with Emily's fabulous Imperfect Prose community

Saturday, November 13, 2010

See? That's God

Living out in the desert has given me my fair share of time for introspection, for evaluating my life, relationships and priorities. I tend to do it anyway, but I've been considering things a bit more systematically than usual, I suppose.

It is now the beginning of winter, by local parlance. It's still air conditioning weather and I'd be wearing sun dresses if it were culturally appropriate - but the nights, at least, have grown chilly and crisp.

The stars are amazing. It's like there's absolutely nothing between me and them. During the last few evenings, I've been wandering around the compound as I brush my teeth or chomp on an apple, head turned up staring at the sky

Tonight all three female residents of the compound were out when city power shut down, as it is wont to do around midnight each day. There was about a 30-second lag until the generator came on, and we were in absolute blackness during those 30 seconds. Blackness except for the varied speckles of light in the black black sky. Little stars, big stars, the moon. The three of us stopped what we were doing, turned our heads upwards, and stared for 30 seconds.

And now, as I pray, I realise that what I really need... what all this introspection comes down to, may simply be the following: I just need to be held as I gaze at the stars and to be told: "See? That's God."

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

if I added all my work colleagues as facebook friends, I'd really have too many

Today I had to go visit an official esque person on some official ish business. He was very kind and gracious and chatted with us as he pored over documents. He gave us a hard time but then covered it up with sugary words. He smiled a lot and... well, you know when you have to visit an official office and you feel like it's you vs. them? It wasn't like that: it was the feel of we're all in this together.

Probably the moment to remember, though, was when we got to chatting about my previous posting where I met our guest, a colleague who arrived today and also went on said visit. A third colleague asked the officialesque one if he knew a certain someone. This someone had worked here and now works there in my old posting which is exactly on the other side of the world. So how awesome that she might be a friend we all - colleague, official, guest and me - have in common?

He puckered up his eyebrows and hmmmmmmmed for a bit. Then all of a sudden he broke out in a big smile. "Oh yes, I've seen her on facebook! She is facebook friends with so-and-so and such-and-such from your office!"

Of course so-and-so and such-and-such are his facebook friends, an the line between social networking and work networking has earned yet another big smudge.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

cat and mouse

I'm back in the field! I'm back in the village where life doesn't really stretch beyond the compound. Literally, I only went out once in the last two days, straight to the UN compound for a breathtaking sunset jog and back again.

(But upon my arrival, a member of my team was so kind as to invite me to his house for "fatour" - breakfast eaten punctually at 11:00 a.m. each day. I was late. Me and six of his brothers ate at 11:30. The poor guys looked like they were starving.)

The big adventure yesterday was a mouse that was shamelessly exploring the room of one of my guest-house-mates. She chased, she had the guard set a trap, she snoozed in my room while we waited for the trap to do its thing, she and the guard conquered. It was a humane little box of a trap, so the guard set the mouse free somewhere outside. And an hour later the mouse (a mouse? we don't really know it's the same dude) was running around again.

I hate mice. So I broached the subject of getting a cat.

The girls loved the idea. Tomorrow our guard has promised to procure us a cat.

So I tick off my biggest reservations in coming to work in this region:
- rodents and no cat. We're getting a cat.
- boss with an unsavoury reputation. Yesterday was his last day.
- nowhere to exercise. UN compound sunset jogs!
- middle of nowhere with no sense of a normal life.... oh, yeah, this is not likely to change anytime soon.

I'd love to draw some lovely deep analogy between our hopefully-new-cat and the mouse. But all I can think of is that, at the same time as the guard - a white-haired man always dressed in a white gown and carrying his security radio - stepped up to the plate and handled the mouse for my housemate... at that exact hour, my boss called me on the phone and took over resolving the painful situation I was in yesterday (see yesterday's blog).

But we're still getting a cat. There's some comfort in feeling I, not some older man, figured out how to take care of the mess...

Friday, November 5, 2010

more perspective

I'm reading through the Imperfect Prose blogs from this week. There are stories about babies and family, about the changing of the seasons, about an inner realisation of deep spiritual truth.

Meanwhile, I am resisting the urge to keep checking my work email, where the bad news seems to keep coming. Mostly. There's a bit of good news in there too, but the bad news overwhelms. For the last 24 hours, every time a new email popped into my inbox, a feeling of doom overtook me. When I opened the email and it didn't introduce a new controversy, I let out my breath. When it introduced more stress, I replied quickly so that I could move on.

Then yesterday I was reminded that instead of focusing on how work conflict affects me, I should look for ways to be a light in the lives of others. Surely there is a reason they are acting this way and they could use some tender-loving-kindness. But then I wrote yet another harsh email reply - because I thought that perhaps by getting it all out in the open we wouldn't prolong the feeling of doom.

I have seen people give up their lives for work, I have friends who walk through 23 hours and 55 minutes of each day in perpetual tension - the remaining five minutes are full of just enough laughter to keep going. I know that the vision of importance in what we are doing can feel like it outshadows the awful people we too easily become.

The stresses are there, and I do believe in what I'm doing so want to do a good job. But need to keep things in perspective. So for today I will go back to reading stories of real women and men, most of whom are very different from me, but with concerns of their own, and their reminders of the beauty in everyday life.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

imperfect prose: random thoughts of joy from a stressful week

Dear imperfect prose friends,

I'm headed back to the land of the questionable Internet but plenty of free time. I look forward to reading your stories tomorrow. Because of the unending transition and travel, I am afraid I've forgotten to blog this week.

So all I have to share with you are a few random thoughts:
- I was reminded this last weekend that I am an introvert. We went to a Halloween party that lasted until 5 a.m. and it has taken me four days of almost non-stop sleep to recover. Not only that but I was particularly not-good at making new friends at said party.
- Also at this party was I reminded at how desperate many people are to make their life count by having fun. I pray for constant reminders that life counts because of what God sees, not because of my performance at a party.
- I was supposed to travel this morning (after waiting a month for my permit to travel) but at the last minute it fell through again. Don't you love those moments in life when things go SO SO SO wrong that when just another thing goes wrong, all you can do is laugh?
- Village life can be boring, but the calm and the solitude really are healing to the soul, aren't they?

Bless you!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

feeling helpless

This week some dear friends wrote the following in an email to me: "It seems that a feeling of helplessness makes one REALLY pray, and oh boy! do we feel helpless and know to
PRAY!"

I love that. Isn't it so true? At the moments when we feel most lost and helpless, those are the moments when we are most inspired to reach out to God and ask him to take over. The beautiful thing is that we turn ourselves over to God, but we can also pray for others. Sometimes I think God, in his bigger more majestic view of the world than that of us people, wants us feeling a bit helpless because then we trust him. And really, he'll always do a better job at everything than a human could, any day of the week.

This has been a challenging weekend for me: lots of fun and happy moments, but a brutal and searing reminder of my helplessness.

If you weighed in on my "right" vs. "stupid" conundrum, I'll say that the lesson I've learned this week is that when something seems both "right" and "stupid" it very well mean that there is no right or even smart human answer - we're helpless, and maybe it really is time for God to take over. So I stand here today, declaring my commitment to ask for an act of God.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Cultural personalities

I saw today that I'm two people: the Arab me and the non-Arab (American? British? not sure what culture to define here) me are almost entirely two different people. I'm probably more than two people, but today I witnessed two versions of myself.

Background: Here in the capital city, we have what is called a "duty driver" who is on-call from the end of one workday until the start of the next. He's at our beck and call. Some days, he's harried and crazy-busy with airport runs, the boss's kids, and keeping up with out-of-town visitors. Other days - and today is one of them - he sits in the office and does nothing for the bulk of 16 hours. So I asked him to take me to the gym - a 5 minute drive, but not an appropriate walk for a respectable girl. He dropped me off and I asked him to pick me up at 8:00. I gymmed until 8:00. Then I went out to meet him and he wasn't there. So I called and he said he was delayed by a colleague's request. The street of the gym is a very, very dark and isolated dirt road. Since I am trying my hardest to be a respectable girl who doesn't stand alone in dark streets, I walked up to the main street and entered a supermarket. Long story short, the driver was urged by the colleague to come pick me up faster than he'd intended (he would have dropped her off and driven around a bit, leaving me waiting a good 1/2 hour), but it took a few phone calls to convince him I'd walked up the street - he waited outside the gym for me for several minutes even though I called to say I left! Finally, driver and colleague drove down to the brightly-lit supermarket and I got in the car.

It was at this point that my two personalities emerged:

1. In Arabic, to the driver, I started babbling and practically yelling, saying: "Of course I was going to walk somewhere else! PLEASE, if you're going to be late, I need to make an alternate plan: I can't wait alone on a deserted dark street! I'm a respectable girl! If I were your SISTER, would you leave me there waiting on the dark street? So I had to think of somewhere to go, and you have to understand that if you need to be late, I'm scared because I think like a girl from here, not like a foreign girl. So you have to inform me and we make another plan!" He replied and we went back-and-forth a bit, and it ended in laughter, and we are probably better friends because of it. But I did shout.

2. In English, to my co-worker, once I was done having it out with the driver, I said in a much quieter voice that I was sorry for the confusion, it's just that we had agreed that he'd pick me up at 8:00. She said she usually calls him and waits inside for him, and I explained that I felt uncomfortable doing that because the gym was already closed. We had a quiet little conversation. She subtly told me out me for shouting, and I subtly told her out for delaying the car in the first place. But very subtly, both of us, and we're still friends, maybe even better friends because of it.

On one hand, I'm proud of this little reminder of how Arab I've learned to be, demonstrating passion over subtlety, stating opinions rather than hinting at them. On the other, I'm frightened by how naturally I take on an identity with little intention or control.

Dear Fellow Imperfect Ones, Thank you so much for your lovely words last week. Your advice as all so uplifting, encouraging, and thought-provoking. This week, I have another existential question:
What do you do when the decision that seems "right" also seems "stupid"?


Monday, October 25, 2010

Grapefruit juice

Grapefruit juice may come to symbolise this season of waiting in my life... I sit here with a half-glass of watered-down juice in front of me. These days, as I await in the capital city to return to the field, I'm rarely very far away from a watered-down glass of grapefruit juice.

Grapefruit juice is bitter, oh-so-bitter! My Sue Dan ese colleagues and friends don't seem very interested in my grapefruit juice since they prefer things sweeter. Drinks and desserts here are very very sweet.

Since I've been in Sue Dan, I've been on a hunt for grapefruit juice and for tonic water. I couldn't find either at first, and then boxed grapefruit juice popped up in the bigger supermarkets. I guess a big shipment came in from somewhere. Tonic water is still elusive, and likely to stay so, since it's often mixed with alcohol and that's not allowed here. (I like plain tonic water with ice and lemon, just for the record. The one time I've accessed tonic water in the capital, it was at a party where the alcoholic drinks were the same price as the non-alcoholic. Since the price was paid, I couldn't resist adding a little sumthinsumthin to my tonic water.)

Grapefruits are currently in season and are sold on the side of the road throughout town. While I love drinking bitter things, I'm hesitant to eat bitter things so have watched in awe as my guest-house-roommate downs full grapefruits.

Since grapefruits are in season, fresh grapefruit juice is often on offer at local restaurants. But sometimes juice here is very watered down and intensely sweetened. I don't want to waste my grapefruit energies on bad juice, so I've avoided ordering it in restaurants.

In the guesthouse, we don't have a wide selection of drinks. There are juices in the fridge, but they're very sweet and some of them are strange flavours. Otherwise, it's coffee or maybe tea. Grapefruit juice just puts me at ease, it's a familiar taste.

I love oreos with grapefruit juice. Plain dark chocolate with grapefruit juice isn't bad either.

Yummy zingy grapefruit juice.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

stability of the heart

Dear Imperfect Prose friends,
If you leave me a comment today, I'd love it if you'd please give me advice.

Right around Easter, earlier this year, I found out that the job I'd been offered had fallen through. This followed two weeks of ticket purchase, start-date negotiation, preliminary househunting, and arrangements for a remote move of my belongings. The email arrived late in the afternoon on Easter Monday, and said merely that the project had not been funded so they could no longer offer me the job. They'd let me know if anything else came up.

My first reaction was disbelief. I read it again. My boss at that time was sitting across the table from me. He had really supported me in this new job, so I told him. He said, "I guess you're going to Haiti!" (This was 2 months after the Haiti earthquake. Everyone in my line of work who was available was going to Haiti. And it turned out he was right.) Scoff. At that very moment, I felt in my heart that God was saying that this happened because he had something better for me. Probably not Haiti - something better.

But nonetheless, the tears threatened, so I excused myself to take a walk. We were in a lovely residential neighbourhood of Padang, Indonesia, where the sunsets are gorgeous. So I walked, cried and basked in the sunset. I felt confident God had better. (And I now know that he did.)

But for two weeks after that, until my Haiti plans were settled, I was utterly listless. I couldn't focus on work, I didn't catch up on emails with any friends or call my family. I watched a couple of films each day, took long walks and sat staring at the wall in my little hotel room. I knew God had told me he had something better, and I trusted. I really did. Even so, all the motivation in my heart had been drained.

Today I'm again in a place of waiting without knowing what will be resolved or when. This place is not so bad as Easter was: I actually have a good idea of what's around the corner, and am just wondering about the details. But I find myself feeling the same emptiness. Work is less interesting, there's not much socializing that needs to be done. I stare at the wall and wait for news. Wait for life to start moving again.

I'd love to learn enjoy these moments of patient solitude. I know it is all going to work out. This is a precious season when I don't have to worry about things. There's not much to stress out about when you're waiting for someone to stress out on your behalf.

I'm not stressed. My heart is just a little bit less full than usual. So I find myself wondering how to fill up the minutes. How to take advantage of waiting instead of watching the minutes pass, one at a time.

Wishing a joyful Thursday to the brilliant members of Emily's Imperfect Prose community - you are starting to feel like family.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

A dozen joys in my life

I'm having a melancholy evening. I'm not sure why, as it's been a lovely weekend and a busy week. Because it's been busy, though, I haven't had the time to catch up with loved ones that I would have liked to have had. No skype calls or chats where I usually might have had at least a few. The fullness of my life so easily separates me from the things and people I value the most.

Nonetheless, I have so much to be grateful for, so I want to end the evening on a positive note. A dozen joys in my life this week have been:
  1. Making fish soup (my first culinary adventure since arriving in this fair land. And a fine fish soup it was too!)
  2. Walking with a lovely lady around the frisbee field for an hour and a half, surrounded by green trees and a colourful sunset sky
  3. Syrian Fresh Restaurant and the fact that my current-guest-house-roommate likes it too so we keep going back
  4. Iced Americanos, caf and decaf available
  5. Grapefruit juice
  6. The rare but treasured taste of tonic water (ohhh I detect a consumables theme)
  7. An evening with Brasilian friends, enjoying true heart-level conversation (ok... and good food)
  8. Tonight's run by the Nile
  9. Walking barefoot around the guesthouse, a tribute to our cleaning lady's commitment to mopping the floors. She's a sweetie
  10. Losing at pub trivia night with my c-g-h-roommate and two British guys
  11. The fact that people were friendly at church
  12. Developing an awesome community-driven strategy for my project (ok, I had to throw one work one in there)
  13. (bakers dozens are always the best) The reminder that people pray for me.

carnivore

The other night we almost subjected ourselves to a most absurd eating experience. We pulled out, practically running away from the table, though, before it was too late.

The name of the restaurant is "Carnivore". We were somewhat fascinated and somewhat horrified by the name. A morbid fascination, perhaps, was what drew us to the place, even though there was a vegetarian in our midst. For my part, I'm always on the lookout for Brazilian-style churrascarias, those fabulous all-you-can-eat-meat joints. Outside of Brazil, the best I've had has been in Africa. So I dared to hope.

We pulled up to the recently-inagurated facility at the end a line of popular fast-food chains. Ten metre-tall bulls horns - or were they bisons claws? - loomed over us as we walked under the entry arch they created.

On our left was a huge barbeque pit with about 5 skewers of meat and space for about 50 more. Ahead of us was an indoor seating area that looked like a hunting lodge. By the pit were some outdoor tables and chairs. The chairs had fake zebra-skin covers.

Before we could take in any more, a smily African man in a bright coral-coloured shirt greeted us. He was clearly excited for our presence and invited us in. We said we were waiting for some more friends and he insisted we sit down on the zebra chairs while we waited. His assistant selected a seat among the table's 10 chairs and held it for my friend. The bright-shirt man chose another chair and pulled it out for me. Overwhelmed and at a loss for how to refuse politely, we sat.

The man didn't go away. Instead he started to chat with us about everyday things - where we're from and what we do. Then Smiley told us that this is a new restaurant with a set menu. For a single - steep - fee, we would get water, soup, all we can eat meat, desert and coffee. What about a vegetarian, we asked? He offered chicken. No good. So he went away to talk with the kitchen and we leaned back in our chairs. My friend quickly texted the rest of our party, warning them about the price.

I took in the rest of the scenery: stuffed aligator by the entrance to the kitchen, some crazy wooden balls hanging from above which felt they could fall on us. The whole ambiance screamed cheesy-theme-restaurant: MEAT!!! We should have suspected, considering the name of the restaurant.

The coral coloured smiley guy came back and offered mushrooms to my friend, with no discount. Then he offered us water. We refused. He insisted. We refused. He had his assistant pour us water, which we didn't drink.

Because as soon as our third friend showed up, he took a quick look at the place, heard our quote of the menu, and agreed with us. Since Smiley was nowhere in site, we quickly walked out.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

a tribute to those who inspire me

In the past two years I've worked in approximately 6 countries. I have loved getting to know my colleagues and learning new ways of doing things. I've had moments of immense joy coupled by others of extreme frustration and disappointment. Though many of these people remain in my life only as a past memory, surely one of the biggest gifts God has given me is the diversity of people I've met.

Nowhere, however, have I been as touched as I have been by the hearts of my current set of colleagues. Here are just a few of the people who have inspired me in the month and a half since I arrived in SD...

- During my first week in the office, only one member of my team was not on vacation. He and I got some good quality time in that week. He told me about his African roots and his tribal language. And he told me how much he loves taking care of paperwork and logistics as he ran off to photocopy some documents then get them signed. He works for me, but he has no shame and teases me endlessly, but his eyes betray passion and his words make us all laugh.

- One of our key support staff in the capital has only had kind words for me since the day I arrived. He's currently on leave in Siria, which is possibly my favourite country on earth. Even though he already has dozens of friends there, he asked me for advice and said he'd call my friends to greet them for me. I think it was all an excuse to get me to tell him what I want him to bring back for me. I asked for green tea and spices.

- A field officer for women's programs here in the capital is as black as a nubian raven. Her eyes sparkle and her lips shine as she goes about her day's business. One day we were waiting for a car to go to the field and she joked and negotiated with the receptionist with such ease and energy, that within minutes we were on the road in an alternate vehicle. She never says no and she never puts me down, but she knows how to express her very-strong opinions in a way that somehow still leaves me happy.

- Another member of my team is the oldest of a couple dozen kids (yup!) in an influential family. One day we were standing on the road outside the office waiting for a vehicle and, in the course of 10 minutes, at least a dozen people walked by and made a point of greeting him. But he doesn't let it get to his head. He greets them back, then gets to work doing whatever it is that needs to be done. He asks for advice and gets things done on time, he's polite and kind. But oh is he passionate. He has big dreams for helping his community and is looking to our project to get him started accomplishing those dreams.

- Our poor logistics guy has been running errands for me on a daily basis during the last week or so. I don't know how he keeps up, but he never slows down, never complains, and never delays. It's amazing to be able to count on someone like that to get the job done.

- I could write a tribute to each and every one of our drivers. They live for our beck and call, and they always joke and chat and try their hardest to please us. But I'll finish today's little tribute mentioning the driver who took it even a step further. On a routine school visit, he so happened to notice that some trees we'd planted were not being watered. Instead of eating his breakfast in the shade, as one might expect of a driver waiting for his passengers, he tracked down a community member and gave him a lecture on watering trees. Then he reported to our team and had them put together an action plan for making sure that the trees we plant are nurtured and growing.

Monday, October 11, 2010

a fascinating contribution to the great US debate of the year

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/08/nyregion/08zero.html?_r=1&emc=eta1

In summary, the controversy about the proposed Islamic Centre in Manhattan is in some ways a repeat of a controversy about a Catholic Church that was build in Manhattan 225 years ago. The same criticisms, the same demonstrations, the same concerns... The church is still there and gets along with its community.

What do you think about this?

Sunday, October 10, 2010

patience

I'm on standby. Waiting for something to come through so I can go on with my life.

It's ironic, it's really not very important at the moment, but I have this sense of fear that if it doesn't come through I'll start to blame myself and get impatient not because of the effect it has on my life, but because of the effect I suspect it might possibly be having on other people's lives.

Seriously?! See... this is why we write things down. That is just a ridiculous paragraph up there. I'd best just keep waiting patiently.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Empty hands, warm hearts, full minds

I just wrote a blog for Imperfect Prose, then realised that it wasn't the story I wanted to tell here; the story I wanted to tell I wrote back in August. I know Imperfect Prose is full of prose: lots of good writing by dozens of amazing people, but still I find myself telling a third story here, and then linking you to the other two.

Yesterday, I met a group of ladies who live far, far away from their original homes. Some were even born here, but they know they're not from here. They look different, they sound different, and they have spent the last 20 or 30 years dreaming of going home. Now, they're preparing to move. Circumstances have changed and it's time to go. Home. Back where they are from, to a place that's completely foreign to them. They're excited, yes. But they don't remember it.

When we sat down with them, they pointed with pride to the alphabet on the wall - they have just learned to read! One lady came over and showed me some fabulous doilies that she made. Another put a tray of home-made cologne in front of me. Two women passed out sales-quality sweets. Then they took off their flimsy sandals and sat on the floor, humbly asking our advice even though it was clear their wisdom and practicality grew miles deeper than my own.

They're leaving. They know where they're going but they don't know how to get there. They don't know what to expect. And all they'll take with them is their street smarts and their ability to make things with their hands.

I think of their fears, and of their courage to stand up and walk into the abyss, with nothing in their hands but so much in their hearts and minds, and I am humbled.

This is the story of me, leaving things behind in all my wealth and comfort: Violins. And other things left behind

This is the story of a person whose life of loss continues to teach me: The Iraqi Violinist

And this is the link to the many wonderful stories of Imperfect Prose, hosted by my dear friend Emily: In The Hush of the Moon

Violins. and other things left behind

Last year, my parents gave me a violin for my birthday. I was living in the highly unusual city of Dili, Timor Leste, and felt like I needed more music in my life so I could keep my soul together. One afternoon, I left work, drove to a little music shop and picked out a cheap violin. The next day my parents gave me the money to pay, and I started practising scales, enjoying the sound and the discipline after many years of string silence.

This week, on my birthday, my parents asked me if my violin had survived the journey from Dili to Cart um. No, it had not, I told them. Since I left all of a sudden, a friend packed up my things for me, and we agreed that anything someone in Timor might use would be left there. A young orphan girl reportedly inherited my cheap plastic Indonesian violin.

My mom was sad about the loss, but I think she understood. She asked me to write a blog about things lost - that which is left behind on every move I make, so here is a shortened list of the highlights from the last couple of years. I find an interesting juxtaposition between this and a blog I wrote recently about loss and violins. This violin was not a loss, it was a re-gift.

Here are some other things that have stayed where I have left.

Coffee press. Actually I often leave coffee presses behind. The first one was about two years ago when I left Jordan, but my parents recovered it and brought it back to me. I'd already replaced it, left it behind, and bought yet another one.

I think I left a coffee press in Cyprus. The girls I was living with had a large coffee press but often only wanted coffee for one person. So I left them my single-serve coffee press.

Computer speakers. The day after I arrived in Kosovo, I decided that my cozy little ground-floor flat was quiet and lonely (despite being next-door to a night club). So I went out and bought myself computer speakers. I bequeathed them, and several other houseware items, to our cleaning lady, a kind and needy woman who wasn't ashamed to ask for things.

Havaianas. (flip-flops) My dear Syrian friend came to visit me in Kosovo. Her flip-flops broke while there, but she massaged the rubber and put them back together again. I followed her back to Syria, and a month later, when I left, I handed over my own pair. They were much newer and nicer, but the same brand and absolutely replaceable.

Running shoes and yoga pants, and capoeira painting. Many many items were left behind in Timor, but these three are the ones I seem to miss the most. An avid runner, I've been pounding the pavement, sand and treadmills in some cutesy style trainers for the past nine months, and was hoping those days had ended. Alas, my shoes stayed behind. As did my yoga pants that I'd bought in Cyprus to celebrate my new favourite sports activity.

The capoeira painting was made with used coffee filters. A more Brasilian item of decor may not exist. How could I not leave it to my American-dominican-capoeiraplaying-wannabebrasilian friend in Timor?

Coffee press. I actually left behind two coffee presses in Indonesia. The first one I intended to leave so I already bought its replacement - a nicer version that I wouldn't be leaving behind. But the first one broke and I couldn't bear to leave my fellow coffee-lover without a coffee press.

My suitcase. This one may have been the hardest to part with. This suitcase has been to three dozen countries with me. I can pack it so no space is left empty and it still doesn't tip the balance of the airlines' weight limit. It first traveled in September of 2001 when I started this journey, and has stayed by me faithfully, through brutal searches, broken zippers, flooded baggage holds, long walks on rocky ground, and so much more. But when I arrived in Haiti, the repair job on the zippers was failing and the second-generation wheels were giving up. I hid it in a closet and walked out the door, refusing to look back.

This is a short-list, and none of these items are truly losses. I choose to believe that all are being used by people who appreciate them. And I already have a new coffee press! Actually this one was a gift from family, so I hope to not leave it behind.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

oof - growing into a manager

Today, as the day went by, I had at least three lovely blog ideas. Thoughts that I wanted to remember and that would be fun to write about.

An hour ago I sat down to write and couldn't remember any of my ideas. So I went to take a shower. In the shower, I thought of something else I wanted to remember, it was just a little snippet, but now I can't remember.

Ah ha! But as I wrote my OOF, I remembered.

The other day I dreamed that a member of my team was a baby. I had to take care of him and hold him in my arms. Caring for a baby was fun, that baby being a staff person was awkward.

That's it.

The life of a manager: caring for babies and a hyperactive brain that can't remember them. Uh oh.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

It takes a village

Most of my young mother friends would dread flying alone with a toddler and an infant. If they absolutely had to do it, they would pray for a sympathetic stewardess and seat neighbours who were patient enough to deal with a little bit of crying.

If one of my young mother friends were so fortunate as to have a seat neighbour offer to hold the infant while she tended to the toddler, or play with the toddler while she fed the infant, she would be extremely grateful. If another seat neighbour carried the infant for her, she'd either feel eternally indebted, or she'd be scared of malicious intentions. Such an act of kindness would probably warrant, at the very least, a tweet or facebook update.

I'm not a young mother, but I'd imagine that this is how most young mothers of my Western cultural background would react.

Yesterday I flew on a plane with a Sue Dan Ese young mother from Elg. She was traveling back to rejoin her husband in the capital, after giving birth and spending her son's first 40 days with her family. After a moment of tearful farewell with her mother, grandmother to a big-eyed toddling girl and a cuddly infant boy, she was left alone with a purse, a shopping bag, and two children.

The young mother joined me in the women's waiting room and we chatted a bit. The daughter played the staring game with me for a few minutes. The baby slept and ate. Then other women joined us. One of those women took the infant in her arms while the young mother went to check on something at the check-in desk, and the girl went to play with another family in the waiting room.

When it came time to board, the young woman tended to her purse and shopping bag and held her daughter's hand. Another passenger carried the infant onto the plane, several hundred metres ahead of the young mother. When we sat down, the mother got her daughter in place, then received the baby back in her hands. After takeoff, the woman next to her took the sleepign baby in her arms. Since I was sitting near the mother, I got to hold the infant for an hour, as mother and other neighbour ate their lunches and napped a bit.

The mother seemed grateful, but not surprised, that all the other women on the plane took turns helping her with her children. If anything, she was surprised that I, a foreign woman, wasn't scared of holding her baby. But the other women from her village... well, they may be strangers, but somehow, they were family.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Our kids should grow up together

A story... made up... but absolutely true... based on account shared by a colleague.

I don't remember what started it. It was about five years ago. Five years ago... there was some kind of disagreement between someone from our tribe and someone from their tribe. So they started their own village, I guess.

See the other side of those farms there? Those houses and buildings are the new village where the other tribe is - their school is there, their market is there, their services are there. But it's so small, and they have nothing.

I live nearby, in that house down the road a bit. See it? It's my family's home, we've lived there for generations. Our neighbours on both sides are from the other tribe. I've known them since we were little kids. We grew up playing together on the streets, then we went to school together, and a few of us went off to the city for high school together. In high school I shared a room with people from the other tribe - we were from the same village, so who cared that at home we spoke different languages?

Then the problem happened. For a while we didn't even talk to our neighbours, and I can't even remember why! It was like we started hating each other overnight, but we didn't hate each other, you know? We'd pass each other in the street and I'd want to say something, but it just seemed like I'd be betraying my family. Well, now we talk again. We're not best friends like we used to be, and we don't visit. But at least we're neighbours again.

But still, my children go to this school here. They have teachers and classrooms and some notebooks. But their children... the neighbour kids walk all the way around our village, in between those farms, to the other little village over there. I visited once. There's nothing there. The school only has one little thatched room, but the children study under a tree. They don't have books, pens, or chairs. Over here, we don't have a lot, but at least my kids study in a classroom.

I know there are plans to improve the school over there. I'm glad that the other kids will have classrooms, but the whole thing is silly. I don't know if anyone here remembers what the problem was. Their children should come here to study, not fix the classrooms over there. A few days ago, I started chatting with my neighbour in front of our houses, and I'm sure he agrees with me.

So, once the classrooms are built over there, I plan to find a way to get all the children back into our school over here. We need a medical clinic and could really use a community centre. So let's use the new school there for community services. But our kids... they should grow up together.

written for Emily's imperfect prose: a little less introspective than may be norm, but this is the everyday imperfection that my life is made of.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Of people I know and of people I don't know

There's a lot of good stuff to say about life, so I prefer to say good stuff. But somehow, it seems like all of our sense of humour, all of the ironic beauty we find in life these days, relates to the bad stuff. Or involves personal commentary on a person I know.

Even the nice stories, even the tales of people who have impressed me, they are hard to tell without pulling out something critical.

The guards who work 12-hour shifts to keep us safe... they are always a source of happiness in my day. They joke, the say hi, and they make me feel sheltered. But still, they are guarding us.

The relationships between colleagues living here in the guest house... we peaked at 6, but half of us are going on leave and the other two might be moving out, leaving me alone. They're great people, but if I really want to talk about the guest house, especially if I want the story to be interesting or entertaining, I might have to throw in a personal jab at people I mostly respect.

The bugs... grasshoppers and little gnats who love my computer screen are my most populous neighbours these days. Much could be said about them, but I'd feel like I'm complaining.

The hedgehogs, those cute and adorable rodents... but they are rodents, nonetheless.

The training I attended today, which was surely an entertaining occasion... it too focused on a topic I'd rather not dwell on here if I'm focusing on the good.

I guess I could talk about our cooks, and the amusing misunderstandings I've had with them lately. Or the old guy who has come to my office everyday for the last week trying to fix my airconditioning. Apparently he's the only airconditioning guy in town. There are stories - good stories - to be told, and I do hope they come out.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

We all have our standards

This evening God put me in my place. I guess I needed putting in my place, although I'm not yet at the point of thanking him for the experience.

A few weeks ago, I blogged about the church I've been attending. I spoke about how more than half the congregation is comprised of soldiers with guns, and how this made me uncomfortable but also forced me to see that people can worship in any circumstances. I appreciated seeing the guns on the floor and the joyful praise that ignored those frightful things.

But I admit: I also saw in that an excuse to feel good about myself. Proud that I work for an NGO which would not force me, not even allow me, to carry a gun. Pleased in the peaceful nature of my job. I was just a little smug about the lack of a gun under my chair.

Not only that, but I don't wear a uniform. Tonight when I showed up for an evening service, I noticed almost everyone else was in their camouflage bottoms, even if they were wearing t-shirts and sandals instead of buff black boots. The women all had bandannas around their heads, lending them an even more casual feel. It felt like church in the barracks, everyone dressed the way I'd be dressed at an evening barn event in summer camp.

It was comfy feeling, but I suppose I again was pleased in the fact that I'd taken the time to get dressed to come to church. I'd even done henna to my hair earlier in the day so I was looking particularly put-together. Furthermore, as I noticed the girls in trousers and t-shirts, I think I subconsciously took pride in the fact I was wearing a long skirt and long sleeves - I felt very culturally appropriate.

So, even though these prideful thoughts had not yet fully formed in my brain, God nipped them in the bud when the preacher himself, right before starting his sermon, came up to me and shouted (rain was pounding on the tin roof, there's no other way I would have heard him) something to the effect of: "When I am ministering, your hair should be covered!" Then he turned to a church leader who handed him, on cue, a light blue cap. The kind the soldiers wear.

So not only was my definition of decent dressing not acknowledged, not only was the formality of my wear disregarded, not only was my henna job not appreciated, not only was my peaceful civilian self not recognised... but I had to wear a cap that symbolised a gun-toting military for the duration of the service!

Now my fellow pacifist friends might here suggest that this is not a church I should attend. Some of us might even question that this church is really Christian. But I don't think that's true. I think this is a church that represents a culture radically different, but no less Christian, than my own. This is just one more category by which God chooses not to judge us.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Beauty... Lost in the crowd

As it turns out, Dar is not that difficult a place to live. Sure security is tight and work is insane, but to make up for it we have the UN Compound. Not only did I learn today that I can buy tonic water there, but even more importantly, they let us run around the perimeter of the compound, a half-mile lap. NGO people run clockwise, UN people run counter-clockwise. Wherever did that rule come from?

Allow me to try to capture the magnificence of running at the UN compound. Every day, my life is as follows: wake up in my little room, walk across the compound to use the latrines and sinks, walk to the other side of the compound to eat the breakfast prepared by the cooks, get in a car to drive me the 200 metres to the office, work in the office all day with a guard standing outside at the compound gate, find a car mid-day that can drive me the 200 metres to eat lunch in the compound, back to office, back to home and leftovers from lunch, enjoy a bit of TV or Internet, work from home. Sleep and repeat.

BUT... every other day, right before sunset, we pile into a car and drive the fifteen minutes to the UN compound. We may wade through soft yellow sand which sticks to our bodies, and we may tiptoe around the sewage of UN soldiers, but we run. We move and feel the wind on our face. We can see for miles in every direction around the compound - the hills to one side, the pristine setting of an enormous ball of fire to the other.

Sometimes, it's just me and one colleague. We don't take our iPods; instead, she slows down her run to pace with me as I try to keep up. We talk and chat about life, both work and not-work, and we watch the sunset together. It's lovely getting to know a lovely person.

Other times, we have company. Two days ago we were three. I took advantage of being a trio to break out on my own for a while, listening to my music and running in solitude. Today, there were six of us. The moment we hit the sand, I was on my own. It's ironic how the larger the group, the more alone I become.

As I was running today, enjoying the company of one, I thought about how I was avoiding my companions. This was one of those rare social settings in which it was ok, and so I did it. Losing myself into the crowd, I felt it's wrong to pull into my shell, but I also felt like the sun and the wind and the sand and the adrenaline and the solitude are healing my soul, one step at a time.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

justice

I know I'm supposed to pass through this phase. I know when I look back I'll hardly even remember it. But that doesn't make it easy at the moment. Life is hard right now, full of questions and doubts and fears. It's the all-too-familiar process of adjustment to a new home. All my physical needs are well cared for, but that lack of rote distraction might be making the emotional adjustment more weighty.

There's also been a slew of bad and not-great news coming my way. A bit of happy news as well, but somehow even the happy news feels sad for some reason.

Plus, while I'm thrilled to be back into the world of social development in the Arab world, it means I get to hear plenty of sad stories at work, too!

And then I run into statements written on the blogosphere about the challenges of keeping a house clean, or the right to use a baby carrier. People's sense of suffering and injustice about things I may agree with but have trouble attributing much significance to, or else things that I don't agree with at all.

Sometimes I feel like their wounds dismiss the pain felt in my own wounds entirely.

What is justice? Who defines justice? If you follow my blog, you know I have a strong sense of justice. I believe some things are absolutely wrong and yearn to see more of other things in our world. How do I respond when other people's sense of justice is violated and I can't find it in my heart to empathise?

Monday, September 20, 2010

In which I become a movie star

A few days ago, I wrote about Arabic, and how all those years I spent learning Syrian dialect, while entertaining to my new friends here, have hardly prepared me for communicating in Dar.

Well, today I learned that some people might just think I'm a movie star! Oh, yeah.

So imagine that Hollywood was in London. In other words, that fabulous British accent that English speakers around the world drool over is the language spoken in all of the biggest cinema blockbusters: combine the beautiful accent with the silver screen.

This is how Darians apparently perceive Syrians! And some of them are convinced I really am Syrian - maybe I'll let them just think that.

A colleague had his engagement party today, so we attended festivities last night and mid-day today. At these events, I got to know his 19-year-old sister, a gorgeous skinny girl who herself was wed a few months back. According to the groom, she spends all day watching TV. To be specific, she watches Syrian soap operas.

So when I first spoke, she asked me, with a glimmer in her eye, "Are you Syrian or Lebanese?" Even though I told her neither, she introduced me to all her sisters and cousins as the Syrian girl. Like she'd discovered a hidden treasure. Her little brothers also threw me some awestruck glances, as if they were seeing television unfold in their very own courtyard!

Yup, I'm totally going to live this up.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

a wise man

You know the kind of person that you just want to sit at their feet listen to them talk, because every word they say seems to be soaked with wisdom and depth?

I met someone like that yesterday. A friend of a friend told me I just had to meet this man, but didn't explain to me why. So I went to his home with no idea of what to expect.

When we arrived at the house, a 2-year-old boy was standing in the entry. We shook his hand: it just seemed like the right thing to do. He smiled back as we passed into a small courtyard containing some vines, flowers and household junk. I followed my friend into the salon: two beds with brown embroidered bedspreads and six metal chairs with flimsy cushions. A small television with a battery pack sat in the seat of honour at the end of the narrow room. Broken concrete floors and shipped yellow painting on the walls told me that this was not a wealthy house. But everything was tidy and clean and I felt I was in a home where there was love.

After waiting a few moments, a booming family man in a light blue robe burst in. He greeted each of us warmly and chuckled as I told him a mutual friend had recommended I come to meet him. He disappeared again and when he returned, he bore a tray with Sprite and candies

At first, we talked about mundane things: common friends, the fact that he's originally from a different part of the country but has lived here for almost 30 years, some of the projects he has worked on. Then, on a whim, I asked him if I could broach a more personal question: "Have you ever been asked by any of your neighbours or local friends to settle disputes, like between families or between tribes?"

"All the time!", he said. He hesitated to give me details, but I sensed it was humility, not timidity, that held him back. So I probed a bit more and, sure enough, he started talking. He told me of how he'd been called to distant villages to settle land disputes between nomads and farmers. How he'd been asked to review agricultural data and property deeds to recommend a solution when people he knew were at an impasse with a neighbour.

But as we talked, I discovered that there is one issue that he holds more dearly than others. That issue is gender. He shared a story of a man who divorced his wife over the phone. My new friend called up the man and asked if he could arbitrate to reconcile him with his wife, and began a slow and painful process of tempering his friend's expectations and encouraging the wife to make the decision that would be best for their children. He engaged trusted elders in their respected families to convince them, and they are now back together.

He also told me more heartbreaking stories, of women who had been mistreated by their husbands, and his face was pained as he told the stories. But I knew he was a wise man when he also explained to me the advice he would give to women to avoid such situations in the first place. No issue is one-sided, and here was someone who saw both sides.

I'd already overstayed my welcome, and he had a family to tend to. As I left, his wife came out to bid us farewell. She was a strong, joyful woman, and I could see in both pairs of eyes that they are good partners. Then we accompanied us out to the car, and he greeted our driver like a long-lost friend. I asked how they knew each other, and he just laughed and said he knows lots of people around town.

Yes, I most certainly want to sit at his feet for hours on end, and learn from him - and from his wife.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

New Friends, once again

I heard them outside as I typed away in my little dark room. I was writing emails and reports, reading planning documents and the like. Outside, they were chattering and giggling. Then I got an invitation to join them and play ping-pong. I told them I'd be out shortly.

An hour later, my eyes blurry and my brain tired, I decided it was time to join the living. I stepped out into the courtyard and here is what I saw: green, purple, yellow and pink skirts and headscarves, all decorating teenage girls with timid and hopeful smiles. Six girls crowded around the ping pong table, trying to share the two rackets as their basketball coach - my housemate - taught them how to play. Another half a dozen sat scrunched onto a bench in the little bit of shade against the courtyard wall. One girl sat on a floormat, nestled up next to the other coach.

It was a fun party, but certainly a shy one. The girls talked and giggled, but hesitantly. I don't imagine they attend social events very often - teenage girls in El seem to have a lot of housework, schoolwork and family visiting to keep them busy. But these girls were different: they had joined the basketball team.

They greeted me with hesitant smiles, and I'm ashamed to say that I greeted them back even more shyly yet. I didn't shake their hands and I'm sure I was completely inaudible when I told them my name. When they learned I could speak Arabic, though, they warmed up anyway. They asked me to sit with them, and when the food came they saved me a seat and beckoned me to eat.

I didn't. I couldn't. I was too weary. They were lovely girls, inviting me into an experience of mentorship and affirmation, but all I could think of was how hard it is to keep up with a dozen teenagers, and how tired I am of making new friends. But these girls don't know that about me, nor did they judge me.

Afterwards, my housemate invited me to join them at their next practice. They'll love talking to you, they'll love that they can communicate with a foreigner!, she said. I will visit basketball practice soon, and make friends with these demure teens who have broken social norms to become athletes. But only once I find the energy to really talk with them.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Habeeby... Arabic, my love

Arabic is a fascinating language. I maintain that it is the most difficult language in the world, that is, it's the least likely to ever be mastered by a non-native speaker. In fact, it's a rare gem to find a native speaker who has mastered the language!

It's also beautiful. It is THE language of poets. I have a friend from Iraq who is a poet - at 18 years of age she won a regional contest so she must be good. When she stands up to recite a poem, I don't understand a word. But my heart is inevitably touched. The sound of the words, the tone of the spirit in the phrasing, it's music!

Arabic also has many different dialects, some as close as the New York Twang is to the Southern Drawl, and others as different as Spanish is from French! This second comparison might fairly apply to the relationship between the Arabic I speak and the Arabic spoken in Dar.

Case in point: today I was talking to the cook in our compound about the water filters. I asked her where she was going to put the water filters (in Arabic). She replied, "What?" (in Arabic). I asked her if she planned to put the water filters in the living room (in Arabic). She replied with a confused look. I asked her if the filters would stay in the kitchen (still in Arabic). She nodded in agreement. This evening I arrived home and found the filters in the living room. Oh yeah, we totally speak the same language.

This evening I asked her to pick up something for me in the market. I wonder what she'll bring back!

But what's truly fun about being in Dar, where the dialect might as well be a different language from the Shami (Damascus) dialect I speak, is that everyone knows the Syrian soap operas and so they try to stay up to date on Shami slang. My arrival has become a source of great entertainment for many of my colleagues, who try to think up good Shami greetings whenever I walk by.

"Kif Halek!", they'll greet me, trying to sound Damascene (Darians could just say "Keif" if they want to ask me how I'm doing), but in fact sounding like a textbook.

"Shu Akhbarek?", they might ask me, meaning "What's up?", but only remembering to ask me once we're in the middle of the conversation.

"Shu biki?!", they say cheerfully. This means, "what's the matter with you?", but close enough.

Sometimes when I enter a room, I can see that they've been prepping. They smile at me, pause, crunch up their eyes as if trying to remember, then sputter out a typical Damascene greeting which makes me feel right at home.

I appreciate the effort because I don't yet know beyond a few words of Darian Arabic.

But then, of course, we are likely to switch to English, since their Arabic and my Arabic might as well be two different languages.

Monday, September 13, 2010

dresses and plastic guns

Yesterday was the last day of Eid al-Fitr, the three-day holiday that celebrated the end of Ramadan. It kind of plays the social role in Muslim communities that Christmas plays in Christian communities. For example, children are given special gifts on the first day of Eid. Then they parade them around and play them into the ground during the next couple of days.

For the last four days I've been enjoying the parade of women's fashion around town. Girls have all received new, bright-coloured clothes, and they've been wearing them to go visiting or just to promenade around the block. I don't know what will happen to those clothes for the rest of the year - they are certainly more special-looking than the everyday I attire I usually see. The big thing this year for teeny-bopper girls were white boots with lots of bright shiny dangly things. Everything else was some variation on bright colours: mainly yellow, purple, green and magenta.

For the last four days I've been alternately fascinated by, then horrified by, the abundance of small boys playing with plastic guns, as often as not pointed at me. With a big grin, a 4-year old lad - one of many - will see me pass by and point the barrel at me. He'll giggle as he pretends to pull the trigger. It's a game, and his face betrays no thoughts of hatred or violence, but it does not seem to be a healthy start to a long life in a conflict-ridden region.

I remember my first Eid in the Palestinian camps of Damascus: children there did the same thing. But the Palestinian boys were playing with long-barreled plastic rifles pointed at each other. These boys in Dar are playing with small plastic pistols, pointed at ME.

So girls dazzle the region with fashion and grow into tall, proud beauties. And boys dream of the day they'll get to hold a real gun.

(I know I'm a bit fixated on the topic of guns, but I think that fixation tells a bigger story. I'm noticing the guns because they surround me on all sides. I've seen all these things before, but have they ever all sprung in my face as blatantly, all at once, as they have during the past week since I arrived in El? I hereby pledge that this is my last post talking about guns, at least for now!)

Saturday, September 11, 2010

A new twist on worship

I once took a "what religion are you" quiz online - sorry I've long lost the link - and it told me I'm a Quaker. I was quite happy with that designation, as I have a high level of respect for Quakers. One of my favourite aspects of their creed is Pacifism - avoidance of all things that smell remotely of violence. I don't like violence very much, and by association, I'm not a 2nd amendment fan either: I don't like guns.

But I'm a Christian, and I love the fact that Christianity is a global religion, and it's fun to meet new Christians in new parts of the world. So when I was invited to church yesterday I eagerly accepted. The church was the local International Episcopalian/Anglican church (every city seems to have one), and it met on the United Nations compound. It turns out the vast majority of the congregation was Nigerian, so it had a distinctive African feel - music, dance, loud long sermon and everything.

As the opening hymn was starting, a man in uniform (most of these Nigerians were in uniform, as they are part of the peacekeeping forces) took his seat a few rows ahead of me. He had a gun slung over his back. I restrained my shock and kept mouthing the words as he blithely took the gun off and set it under his seat. It was twice the size of his seat and the barrel was facing me, but I figured he wasn't in church to kill. He must be on duty but wanted to take some time out to worship; I could hardly hold that against him.

But as my eyes wandered around the room and more Nigerian soldiers entered, I came to realise that there were at least 30 guns on the floor of that room. The service didn't feel violent, or confrontational, or any of the other adjectives I'd usually associate with guns. Even so, I had to force myself to ignore them in order to not feel too discomfited by them.

God and Guns, who woulda thought?

Thursday, September 9, 2010

uhhh "firecrackers". yeah, that's it

I grew up in Sāo Paulo Brasil, one of the largest cities in the world and certainly one of the more violent cities as well. It's home sweet home, but when I was a kid we did hear the odd gunshot out the window at night. Since we lived in a tall building encircled by a fortified compound, I never - er, rarely - felt any personal fear, but the danger wasn't ever too far away.

Meanwhile, Brasil is, as you surely must know, a land where people love to, and know how to, PARTY. Very few lands on this planet can compete with mine in terms of its fun-loving nature. Among other things, this means that on New Years Eve, whenever a key football team scores or wins a game, or on any other festive occasion, firecrackers are set off all over town. Sometimes it sounds like a storm, and sometimes it even sounds like a gunfight, when there are lots of firecrackers of different sizes.

So this is the mental framework with which I am approaching life in a region that is widely famed for being trigger-happy.

Today was the last day of Ramadan and tomorrow starts the 3-day holiday that follows. So as soon as the sun went down, people started shooting their guns. Everyone has told me it's local tradition. They just let out a round into the air, kind of like some folk in Brasil might set off their firecrackers. And really, these guns sounded more like Brasilian firecrackers to me, than like Brasilian guns.

I was sitting outdoors with a dozen other expats as the guns went off, and they started sharing stories of loose bullets with tragic endings. Then they decided we'd better drag the chairs inside so none of us would get hit by a stray bullet (inside the compound, under an awning sheltered by some trees). But I was still straining my ears trying to believe that they actually were guns and not firecrackers.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

why it will be hard to think of creative posts

I'm slowly but surely settling into life in Dar, and I'm infinitely grateful that I have a slow start: Eid is starting tomorrow. The office will be closed for 4 days as people celebrate their restored right to daytime eating.

I've been a bit of a blurry sinusy daze since I arrived, but I've already noticed a few things that make me think Dar is not going to be quite as wealthy in bloggable portraitable experiences as, for example, Port au Prince or Damascus. Those cities are bustling with people living life right out in the open for all to see, just begging for the chance to welcome us into their excitement.

El, the town where I'm based, feels more like a village than a town. It certainly is a town because the village feel extends for a couple of miles. The driver who brought me back from the airport thinks the city's population is 18 million. While there may not be quite that many people crammed into the many houses spread around town, I suppose it's true that there are a lot of houses spread out and about.

Nonetheless, it's a quiet looking village. People walk around, drive around, push their animals around, ride their animals around. I inevitably see a person passing by when I walk down the block from one office compound to the other. But it's usually only one person that I see, or maybe as much as one carful of people.

This isn't the main reason I fear a lack of interesting sights, though. The main reason is that once again I am confined to strict security rules: 9:00 curfew and no walking. Just like Haiti. Except here our house is full-service: they're used to security lockdown here! We have cooks, cleaners, laundry washers, and guards who also turn on the generator. We have drivers on standby to make sure we can drive the 200 meters back and forth from home to office. And we have 3 meter high walls on all sides of the compound.

My world here will probably be very small. I may have to resort to telling stories about people I know and my everday life! Bring it on.

Monday, September 6, 2010

tribute to drivers

If you travel very often, particularly to new locations, then you are well familiar with drivers and airport pickups. The first person you meet in a new country, whether they were assigned to come get you because it's their job, or they offered to come because they are a friend of a friend, or they drive a taxi and you hailed them at the airport - or train station or bus station or wherever it was you arrived into.

Whoever this person is, he, or possibly maybe she, is your first human introduction to a new place. As you leave the point-of-arrival and drive down the roads through the city, town or countryside, you can ask him questions about what you're seeing. A particularly friendly driver might play the tour guide as you're driving. A particularly unfriendly driver suggests to you that this may not be the friendliest place.

You gauge your linguistic compatibilities with this place by your ability to communication with your driver. You conclude something about the culture on the basis of his driving style.

I've been doing a lot of arriving during the last year or two, and my drivers are people who have served me well, taken a risk in picking up a stranger at the airport, and continued to follow my progress during my stay in a new place.
  • How embarrassing that I can no longer remember the name of our driver in Kosovo, a boyish looking blonde who felt completely incapable of speaking so much as a word in English. By the time I left I could speak with him in basic Albanian, and the ride back to the airport was one of my most memorable as I was 1+ hour late leaving for the airport and he drove like an absolute maniac to barely catch my flight.
  • Luis, the humble Timorese driver who was waiting patiently for me at the airport in Dili. He said he'd rather speak English with me than Portuguese, but his English wasn't enough for a conversation. He was always so nice to me whenever we had car-business to address.
  • Bernard, who picked me up in Haiti. He parked the car in a conspicuous spot then left on his own errand, even though I'd been fully warned of security rules and risks. So I stood by the car for 15 minutes and eventually he showed up and drove me to the office. French would work for him, he said, and he soon was assigned the night shift. He was my favourite of the night drivers.
  • Ali picked me up in Khartoum last week and also didn't feel the need to come in to the airport to find me. Eventually I wandered through the airport parking lot and found the car with our logo. He apologised, saying he'd just really wanted some water after fasting all day. He was very friendly, shook my hand and chatted in the office the next day. This morning he took me back to the airport to catch my flight to Dar and gave me a going-away gift of a hollowed shell that he said Sue Danese use as a bowl for eating or drinking.