Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Levels of contrast

This morning I was standing at a crosswalk waiting for the speeding traffic to stop so I could cross a 5-lane street. This was an ordinary city street in downtown Sāo Paulo, and a bit of culture shock after living in places like Timor Leste and Haiti which barely have paved roads at all, much less multiple lanes of traffic.

As I stood there, a rush of 7 motorcycles came my way. My first reaction was to think it was a motorcycle gang, but then I realised it was just everyday normal traffic. Really not even enough motorcycles worth noticing compared to the average traffic jam in Jakarta, Indonesia, which I passed through several times this year due to work obligations.

Isn't it funny, I thought, how this motorcycle traffic hits me as a shock when I'm coming from Haiti or the U.S., but it's completely negligible when I'm coming from Indonesia?

Then I thought of all the traffic jams here, and how people get stuck for hours driving home from work on weekdays. I have absolutely zero tolerance for this after living in Dili, the capital of Timor Leste, where a bad traffic day meant the road in front of the Presidential Offices was full of cars - it was the only road wide enough to fill up, and the only part of town busy enough to earn the title of traffic jam.

And more examples come to mind:

Crime: The crime here in Sāo Paulo is atrocious, and whenever I come here from, say, Damascus, I am in constant fear and have to keep reminding myself to be careful not to give undue temptation to the crooks. Coming from Port-au-Prince, however, I'm forcing myself to relax when in a car with the windows down. I am telling myself to just enjoy walking on the streets without feeling the heavy load of guilt I'd feel in Port au Prince.

Craziness of traffic: To someone coming from Cairo, Egypt, to Bristol, England, the organisation and discipline of the traffic must be quite a shock. But going from England to a suburb in Virginia is a whole new level of tameness.

Cleanliness: The pollution here in Sāo Paulo used to always bother me. It doesn't now, though, as the Haiti is supremely more dirty than here, and Jakarta has its fair share of pollution as well. Personal cleanliness, on the other hand, is extremely high here and leaves every other country where I've lived in the dust. Except for Timor Leste, where people wouldn't go with me to a sports practice without taking a shower first.

We all know the old truism, that there is always something better and always something worse. Always someone taller and always someone shorter. Always someplace cleaner and always someplace shorter. Always someone richer and always someone poorer. All this traveling I've been doing this year has really pounded that home.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Watching the Brasil game in Brasil

I'd like to have a photojournal of the things my eyes saw yesterday.

To provide a bit of background, Sunday was my first day in Brasil, and the day before Brasil's first playoff game in the World Cup. Flying in from Haiti, I had a hard time believing that there was so little BLING in this country. In Haiti, the roads are painted in Brasilian flags, the streets are decorated with green and yellow bottles, and most cars have Brasilian flags waving off the roof. (Sometimes, one car will have Brasil flags in front and Argentina flags in back, which makes absolutely no sense to me, nor to any of my Brasilian friends.)

Here, there were some Brasilian flags waving from buildings and cars, but it didn't measure up to the level I was accustomed to in Haiti. Are Brasilians just too cosmopolitan and proud to do the bling thing?

But yesterday, when I took a walk through downtown, I saw a different thing. Every other person was wearing green and yellow. Half of those people were wearing official Brasil Team Jerseys. The others were wearing bandanas of the Brasilian flag, green and yellow hairclips, cute little polo shirts in the design of the official jerseys, green trousers with yellow top, official-looking team jackets, or any other assortment of paraphernalia. And, believe me you, there were absolutely no Argentinian, or Chilean, or any other such shorts floating around.

Then I went with some friends to watch the game in a bar. It was packed out. There was a woman there with a green and yellow frog holding a flag. When she squeezed its back, the flag waved. There were kids there in green and yellow clown wigs. There were women in green and yellow garland wigs. Everyone was wearing green and yellow. (For the record, I was wearing yellow shoes, but a red shirt, which in a less friendly more suspicious crowd might have been construed as cheering-for-the-other-guy.)

And in the small space big enough for 10 tables and 100 people, there were at least 10 green and yellow trumpets, and several other noisemakers. And they were all very, very loud.

The enthusiasm in the room was enormous and the festivities when Brasil scored a goal was unforgettable. And no one, absolutely no one, would ever admit to wanting to see Chile win. (Except me, because I thought they were very sportsmanlike and attractive, and they deserved to score at least one goal. Oh well.)

The excitement was palpable, limitless, and absolutely focused on one thing, one team. Who, for the record, really did play a brilliant game.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

underdog - U.S.?

In my previous post, Kati's guide to choosing your underdog, I forgot to mention the United States. Is that enormity of a country an underdog? The team has never made it very far in international footballing competitions and has never been a favourite. So I guess it counts as an underdog.

My American friends are always encouraging me to cheer for the U.S., but I have a hard time doing so. Here are a few reasons why:
- I don't believe my American friends really care all that much. They like winning so want to win, but that's really all it comes down to.
- Being a large country, Americans are more likely to have local loyalties. They'll get more excited about their local soccer team, and probably even more excited if it's a high school or NCAA team.
- Americans like other sports better. American football, basketball and baseball. These are sports Americans embrace but which hold little emotional meaning to people in other countries. USA, do you really want to keep it all for yourself?

And here's my main reason:
- The U.S. is enormous and wealthy. If anyone is capable of producing a winning team, it's the U.S. Healthy diets for children, soccer camp, an infinite pool of bright eyed young men from which to choose a winning team. This puts them at an automatic advantage.

If the U.S. has never won, it just goes to prove that they just don't want it that much. Go Cameroon! Go Ghana! Go Cote d'Ivoire! Those guys know what it means to WANT it.

Kati's guide to choosing your underdog

The first round in the Cup has had a few surprises. Almost everyone still has a shot, as the first round is not even half over yet. So come along with me and choose an underdog to cheer for! Here are the rules I'm following-

Rule #1: Any Western European country is automatically to be booed. This is for two simple reasons: European countries almost always win, and Europe has enough money. Many of these countries have tiny populations but always rank in the top of the world. I think it's because they can afford healthy food and soccer camp for European kids. That's just not fair.

Rule #2: It's a good idea to cheer against Argentina. I have no good reason for this, but I follow it anyway.

Rule #3: Don't start out cheering for Brasil, although you probably should silently support them, because it often happens that eventually all countries will have been eliminated except for European countries and Brasil. At this point, to follow rule #1, you will need to cheer for Brasil.

Rule #4: Take a look at what Eastern European and Latin American countries are playing. These would be the middle tier of underdogs. They come from some degree of privilege but not much, and except for Uruguay, Argentina and Brasil, none of them have ever won before. This year, I hear Mexico and Serbia are looking pretty good. (Mexico beat France, and since France is the only country to defeat Brasil in a WC game in the last 20 years, I don't like France very much. Meanwhile, Serbia beat Germany, which is a huge feat, especially since I was hearing lots of cocky talk with regards to Germany.)

If supporting a winner is important to you, then Rule #4 is for you: your team has a real shot at winning but it would definitely be an underdog win.

Rule #5: Consider the Asian nations. Asians playing football... somehow we seem to have a hard time taking it seriously. So when a team does well, it's rather exciting. I was going to root for North Korea this year, because they are a true underdog and I wanted the North Koreans to have something to be proud of, and receive international recognition for, that wasn't politics. But I didn't like their attitude on the field the other day. I think their government told them to act like sissies. Too bad.

Rule #6: AFRICA! How much more so in the year when the Cup is hosted in Africa should we want an African team to win? South Africa is the favourite of the African teams, but there are some real underdog African countries in the mix. Countries whose entire identity and sense of national pride - and, I believe, motivation to build up their country - could be solidified by a World Cup win. It's never happened and I think this is the time. So here are some choices:
  1. Cote d'Ivoire
  2. Cameroon
  3. Ghana
  4. Algeria
  5. Nigeria
These include some quite strong teams. I've heard good things especially about Cote d'Ivoire and Ghana. Others might have other recommendations.

In fact, I really am not the football expert, so any of you reading this who want to add anything, please do! Just don't try to convince me to cheer for Germany, Italy, France, England, the U.S. or Argentina. It's not going to happen. (Please note, I have many dear German, Italian, French, English, American and Argentinian friends. I love you all very much and know you'll understand why I can't support your teams. After all, my heart is in Brasil.)

Friday, June 18, 2010

rooting for the underdog

The World Cup is the following: four weeks once every four years, in which everyone has something to hope for. Everyone has a team to cheer for, and during the first round every country has a shot at winning. If you ask anyone from a country that didn't get into the Cup, they'll tell you with a smirk that their country's team just isn't good enough for the global stage - but that's ok, they cheer for Brasil. (Or perhaps they cheer for Germany, Argentina or Italy. Blegh.)

Everywhere I've lived in the world, it's been beautiful to see people come together around football. And it's even more beautiful to see people's faces full of hope and optimism as they deck out their cars and streets with flags representing their chosen country.

This is why I want to cheer for an underdog. I want to support the country I'd never associate myself with in any other circumstances, mainly because I come from privilege. I don't want to support a country that's rich, and I don't want to support a country that has won before. Unless, of course, it's Brasil, because that I admit that my green-and-yellow loyalty is seared into my soul,

Brasil is a symbol to the world, though, because it has won the World Cup more times than any other country (5 times, compared to the next-best of 3 times). I've also learned that no country outside of Europe or South America has ever won the World Cup. Brasil is the only South American country who has won the World Cup at a tournament that took place outside of South America. The humble beginnings of many Brasilian players means that people all over the world can relate: they're poor and they're winners too. People suffering all around the world, like Haitians in the camps or Palestinian refugees, find hope in cheering for Brasil.

But how much more exciting would it be if people could find hope in seeing someone truly come from behind, before our very own eyes? How exciting would it be if the players from a country with a brutal dictatorship could take pride in their craft and cause people to forget the politics by which they are judged - even if they had no role in building those politics! How exciting would it be if a team forged from drought and war in Western Africa emerged as victorious over all? This, I believe, would bolster the hope of our planet and might do more to the humanitarian causes of peace and holistic development than any NGO or such institution!

pictures from days in the field

This week I accompanied the water, sanitation, and hygiene team on a rapid assessment of the needs in rural areas in the south of Haiti. And the needs are in fact huge! Really, it's not a question of figuring out what people need, it's a question of figuring out which need we will attack first.

Anyway, spending time in villages always gives some memorable pictures. True to form, I didn't get photos with a camera, but I jotted down the images that were most striking:

- A boy, about 8 years old, in nothing but tightey whiteys running through town chasing his pig on a leash

- A brother and sister walking up from the river swathed in dripping wet navy blue sheets. They were very very skinny.

- A family of seven people or so lounging on an old mattress-less bed in their backyard. This was right around lunchtime. No one seemed to be working and no one seemed to be eating.

- 6 schoolgirls in blue-and-green plaid skirts with white button-down tops, and several dozen white hair ribbons between them, swooping towards our car on bicycles.

- The very pregnant woman who, in response to our questions about the cleanliness of their water source, wanted me to take a picture of the rash on her son's arms.

- A 4 year old boy and a 5 year old girl who looked alike as they stood in the marketplace loitering while their mother joined in a focus group led by my team. I watched from the car as they imitated my every move. Wave-wave, smile-smile, talk on phone-pretend to talk on phone, cover eyes-cover eyes. Then when I got out of the car in my hunt for a photograph of communal latrines (yes I do take pictures when I really have to), they followed me and brought another half dozen kids with them.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

brasil fans: not as exotic as I once thought

I remember so clearly my first year in Syria. It was possibly the most memorable season of my life: stuffed full of heartache, and even more defined by thrills and joy. Life in the dorms, Armenian and Turkish roommates, living on top of 6000-year-old ruins, exploring the desert, making friends from all over the world, even little things like crossing the Atlantic for the first time! And the second, third, fourth and fifth times.

That was the year I had to fly back and forth to America for two weddings six weeks apart. The second wedding was my brother's, and just a few short days after we shipped him off on honeymoon, I swooped back to Syria. Oh, what a clear memory... I had a day-long layover in London and explored the city for the first time. Then people became utterly unhelpful and I couldn't find my way back to Heathrow. I missed my flight. That's a story to repeat in a blog someday - worth writing down every 10 years or so. When I finally made it to Damascus in the middle of the night, my luggage didn't. I showed up at the dorms, petitioned special dispensation to enter my building after curfew, and survived two days on the clothing handouts of my dear Armenian mates.

When I woke up the next morning, this is what I saw: GREEN and YELLOW! I knew it was the 2002 World Cup - what Brasil-bred person doesn't? - but I did not' realise that the world cup happens in the Middle East, too. And that Syrians love Brasil almost as much as Brasilians.

Then I went to Lebanon for the weekend. And that country was so GREEN and YELLOW that I thought for sure I'd caught the wrong plane and headed South from Asheville, NC, instead of East. But no, that is Lebanon.

That July, I watched the final game crowded into the only room in our dorm building that had a TV: it was the vice-building-director's room and my fellow viewers included 2 Armenians, 2 Turks, and 3 Lebanese chics wearing... wait for it... GREEN and YELLOW PYJAMAS. When Brasil won that game, we all clambered out to the balcony and wove our bountiful Brasilian flags and danced and shouted at the mob of men below, all dancing and wearing GREEN and YELLOW and waving flags. I felt so loved.

Four years later, I was once again in the Middle East, leading a team of students in a tour of Syria and Lebanon. While I couldn't quite convince my American or Danish students to care, the Brits in the group joined me as we hunted the streets of Old Damascus looking for the best old Arabic house with the biggest TV screen.

By the time playoffs came around, we were in Lebanon. It was a heartbreaking day for my team when England lost in the morning and Brasil lost to France that night. But at least I had several hundred Lebanese, many of whom have family members living in Brasil, surrounding me, crying with me, cloaking me with GREEN and YELLOW. (This brought back the bitter memory of the World Cup I spent in the United States. I believe that was the one hosted in the U.S., and I was watching with a group of international students all holed up on the Johns Hopkins campus for the summer. Among us loyal fans were me, the token Brasilian, and a guy named Etienne, the token Frenchman. The fact I remember his name just goes to show how traumatic it was when France beat Brasil in that final game. Ouch. At least in 2006 my team played poorly, but in 1998 it was just painful all around.)

Today was the first Brasil game of the 2010 Copa Mundial. I'm in Haiti and every other car here is waving a Brasilian flag. Streets are decorated with GREEN and YELLOW bottles and lamps. On a visit to a rural village today, we passed a home that advertised possession of a TV. They were charging 5 gourde (approx 15 cents U.S.) a game. But for the Brasil game, they charged 10 gourde for entry. At work today, colleagues set up a big screen TV and HR granted a 2-hour lunch break so no one would have to miss the game.

And I promise you, they groaned much louder than me with each missed shot Brasil made, screamed much louder than me with each of Brasil's 2 goals, and uttered curses much more diligently than me when North Korea scored in the last 5 minutes.

I'm afraid I've come to take the fan love for granted.

Friday, June 11, 2010

I miss you my blog!

I miss writing. This week I've been moving! I like moving, which is a good thing since I do so much of it. But I like writing more.

So before crawling into bed at this late late hour, I shall indulge in a brief description of my new surroundings.

We live a five minute drive uphill from the spot where you could say the city of Port au Prince ends; in fact, that spot is about a fifteen minute drive uphill from the official end of Port au Prince. And in fact, I suppose that would be about a half hour drive up-hill from the Port itself. So I feel right at home, just as if I were back in the mountains of Lebanon, where every house has a breathtaking sight of the city and the sea below.

The air is cool. I'm actually shivering a bit! But never fear, the bugs still abound. We have a saltwater swimming pool and a few acres of gardens. Considering the security rules which forbid me from walking outdoors at all, I love the fact I'm living in a compound where a few hundred metres lie between the gate and the parking lot, and few more hundred metres of pathways circle around the building.

The building itself is what we suppose to be an old mansion. The corridors are maze-like and the flats have been nestled into nooks throughout the edifice. This evening, I discovered that bats live in the bottom-level corridor. While I detest sharing my space with non-human living creatures, somehow the bats seem to add to the charm of this particular building. Of course, it helps that there is another pathway from my front door to the parking lot - if I actually had to walk past the bats, I doubt I'd be charmed at all.

Our flat is all decked out with little luxuries that stand in frighteningly stark contrast with the lifestyle of the millions of people below. People whose tents we can barely make out, as we gaze at the sunset from livingroom full of bay windows. This home truly is a haven. I thank God for it and find myself feeling obliged to think of ways to share the wealth.

Monday, June 7, 2010

the guest house conundrum

I'm living in a guest house right now. I love the guest house for a few different reasons. First and foremost, it's right across the street from our office. And since we're not allowed to go anywhere alone and are generally required to be in a vehicle, the ability to go to the office whenever I please is a luxury indeed. In addition, the guest house has two full-time cleaners who make my bed and make sure there's enough TP in the bathroom and make me coffee in the morning. My room is airy and spacious, and I have both aircon and a fan! In this resource-tight post-earthquake place, I feel like I'm hogging all the luxuries

I also love my housemates. The three who actually live here with me, that is.

My other housemates, I'm not so thrilled about. These are the office staff who come in to our kitchen whenever they're in the mood and help themselves to the coffee. They might also help themselves to our food if they're feeling peckish. They start arriving at 6 a.m. and may bop by anytime in the day. Sometimes they come watch TV in our living room as they eat lunch. That lunch may or may not have been cooked using our food.

The housemates-in-residence and I have have discussed this phenomenon for hours on end. We can't make heads or tails of it. Does the staff believe this is a communal house? Is it a communal house? It'd be nice if someone would have informed me before I had the audacity to get my morning coffee still wearing my pyjamas! That's not the image I want to convey to my staff, much less to our director of management quality.

Today, I learned that this may be a staged act of rebellion from the old-timer staff against the influx of snobby and insensitive internationals who have shipped in from around the world in the months following the earthquake. Who are we to get the best guest house in town and keep it all for ourselves?! So they are trying to slowly push us out, using a bit of passive aggressive intimidation in the form of guest house invasion. Oh bother!

There's a third category of housemates, which I like even less. Oh, I despise the third group and would kill them all if I could. Yup, we have mice.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

All-staff meetings

A couple of hundred colleagues are all invited into a room to sit together, hear someone influential in the organisation share, and ask any burning questions they may have. They filter in over the course of ten or fifteen minutes, some with intentional looks of boredom, others excited and curious, and yet others revealing no emotions at all. The seats fill up and people try to find space in the front or close enough to the centre of action so as to ensure they'll be able to follow along, and that their hand will be seen if they raise it.

The influential person may have been the first one there and has been sitting chatting with some key managers as the room filled. Or he may be a bit late and arrive last. Either way, once the room is full and people have taken their places, the room quiets down and the influential person starts talking.

You know the speech. It's motivational yet sensible, all about telling the staff how much he (because, of course, it is somehow always a he) appreciates their hard work, ensuring them that he has every intention of acknowledging and rewarding their hard work, and then grounding them in reality by explaining that they must be patient with the fact change hasn't come as quickly as everyone had hoped. It's always just the same speech, but the exact references are tailored to the nature of the company, the location, the socio-political situation.

Then he invites questions and comments. After a two-second pause, he reminds the hundred or two people that he wants to hear from them, that he appreciates them, that he respects their opinions. Then he makes an awkward little joke and repeats the invitation for questions and comments.

At this point, one of two things happens.

The first possibility is dead silence, inevitably uncomfortable, followed by another awkward joke and a tentative end to the meeting. Everyone shuffles out.

The second possibility is a few moments of silence, followed by someone tentatively raising her (somehow it usually seems to be a her) hand. The question is timid and respectful, but laced with just a hint of controversy. The influential person gives a succinct answer. Then someone else jumps in with a question that's a tad more confrontational, but still mainly timid and respectful. With each question, the controversy rises and the timidity fades. Within a few minutes a lively debate is well underway, and assuming the influential person is a good leader, he fields the questions with a smile and calm thinking. This can go on for as long as the meeting's organisers allow it to go on, but eventually they decide the conversation will be best continued one-on-one, or else they decide people need to go home. And the meeting ends abruptly, with people chattering loudly on the way out.

I've been to two such inspirational meetings here in Haiti so far, and both have taken Option B.