Friday, April 29, 2011

14,000 pills

There is a display at the British Museum, created by a group called Pharmacopoeia (sounds like a pharmaceutical company to me!), that illustrates the medical life of an average person. One side of the display is the life of a man and the other side is the life of a woman.

Each side presents a timeline of the different medical experiences in the person's life, starting with birth and going right up to death. Items listed include vaccinations, appendix surgery, heartburn, lung cancer, and the like: notable moments, medically speaking. Photos, certificates of life and death and the like, and handwritten notes, are added on to the timeline to illustrate the person's life.

Overlying it all is a web full of pills. They vary in shape and size and colour and apparently represent the pills that the person has taken over the course of his or her life. The label tells me that there an average person takes 14,000 prescription pills during his/her lifetime, in addition to about 40,000 over-the-counter pills.

I was horrified by this number but I just did the math and realised that if I include my vitamins, I'm probably batting about 90,000. Ouch! (But since I live in countries where I can get just about any drug without prescription, I'll probably take no more than 100 prescribed pills in my lifetime. I imagine that's not something to be proud of.)

What caught my attention was that the connection between pills and a timeline-of-life gave the impression that a person depends on that many pills to make it to a full-length happy life. But would the person have dropped dead at the age of 1 with no pills? It's very possible, of course, what with infant and early child mortality decreasing greatly with basic immunizations. Would the person have passed on at 30 without the heartburn medications? That's less likely. Did the pills extend a person's life from 70 to 80? Well, good medical care has certainly been connected with higher average death rates, but is it really the pills? In fact, the vast majority of those prescription pills are taken during the last decade of life, when it's probably too late to invest in good health. And surely we pay a price for injecting man-concocted chemicals into our bodies at such intense rates!

And all of this was just a tad disturbing to me when I noticed that the display was sponsored by some guys who refer to themselves as pharma-something. Was this art, or education, or propaganda?

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Inspired by Giving People

A brief tribute to lovely people I know.

My lifestyle breeds selfishness. From where a lot of my friends stand, watching me from afar, countries away, they only see the sacrifices I make. They see that I move around a lot and don't have a home, and I miss out on family celebrations and the like. They might think this makes me a selfless person.

If only it were so. The truth is, that the big things I've given up have granted me free reign to allow myself everything I might want in terms of the little things. My employer encourages it, too: they like being able to hold on to their employees for as long as possible so they make sure we get our holidays and comfortable hotel rooms.

I am well aware of this fact and keep telling myself to not get sucked in by the sense that I deserve any and all comfort for myself that I might want. But the truth is that I probably do depend on those little self-indulgences in order to keep going at what is in fact a very stressful work and life style.

And I've become horridly awful at being a giving person. I forget most people's birthdays and anniversaries and don't think about Christmas cards until it's too late to bother. I write prayer lists to pray for people I love and then forget to pray. I occasionally brainstorm creative gifts I can order on Amazon to send to people but never actually get to it. I don't give food to people I pass on the streets or cook meals for friends who are sick. It's a big deal if I postpone a meal or stay a little longer at the breakfast table to keep a colleague company!

So this self-absorbed blog is actually intended as a tribute to my lovely friends who I saw this past weekend, who reminded me that my life is not normal. Having a heart is closer to normal. I spent time with people who actually arranged their schedules around my convenience, who picked me up and dropped me off and stopped everything to spend time together. And not only were they kind to me, but I saw them being kind to other people, both strangers and other friends. They didn't base all decisions around themselves.

I want to learn from you, my friends. A little bit goes a long way.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Unwanted Gift

You know those girls who gather up all their Christmas gifts on Boxing Day and head down to High Street or the nearest Mall to exchange everything for the items that they actually want? I have always been of the impression that those girls were not an example to emulate. A gift is a gift, and whenever possible we should enjoy and appreciate what we've been given, out of appreciation for the giver. Right? Right?

But apparently that level of NON-appreciation is hardly worthy of notice. The other day I was walking down the street in Bristol and passed this:

Perhaps by "gift" they meant it was a prize won on a tele challenge? Perhaps the person who gave it to them mail-ordered it from Timbuktu?

Otherwise, what are the odds that the giver wouldn't see this sign? Actually, I assume the odds were quite high, or else it'd have been a bit too cheeky. BUT... what about a friend of the giver? Word could get back. Or what about a friend of the recipient? I'd be kind of embarassed for my friends to see me attempt something like that.

Can honesty go too far?

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Cairo University Professor

She walked in and we exchanged names, positions and selection of coffee or tea. Then we sat down, and she lost little time in expressing her frustration with the meeting which had just barely begun. She complained that she wanted to hear from us, but we seemed determined to ask questions of her. Which, to be fair, we did - there was a lot that we wanted to understand.

But then she wouldn't stop talking! Finally she did ask a question and my colleague started to answer. My poor mate never got a full 10 words out of her mouth before the good doctor would either express her agreement by explaining, in depth, her point of view, or she would interrupt saying that my colleague had just reminded her of something else that she and her think-tank were good at. This was a fundraising visit for her so I guess she wanted to impress us. She does so much, she commented mid-sentence, that it is hard to remember it all, and as we talked, she remembered more and more!

She also told us that she knows about 75% of the old-school intellectuals in this fine country - an ironic claim considering that we were talking about youth-centred work. She also mentioned that she's up for promotion: an academic promotion that would pull her away from the project we were discussing. Good to know.

One highlight of the visit was when our boss walked by so we introduced him to her. She said, "You may remember me if you read my articles in the paper. My photos are there, I'm a well-known face!" She said this as she framed her face with her hands. "Keep reading, anyway," she continued as our boss just nodded vaguely. "I have an article next week that you'll enjoy!" How did she know his taste in journalism, I wonder? He smiled and nodded and stifled a snicker. But those of us who know the office, we saw it.

Another moment in the conversation was when she wanted to refer to a small group of people but instead said that there were 'a little bitch' in the group.

And she was sure to leave us with a fine farewell. As we said our goodbyes, she apologised that she has a slight cold so we didn't have the opportunity to enjoy her usually lovely voice during this meeting.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Lent Fast Lessons Learned

What did you give up for Lent? Do you have the tradition of doing Lent? Or did you add something? a friend of mine pointed out, often it's a better spiritual discipline to decide to DO something than to NOT DO something.

It's been a few years since I have 'celebrated' Lent. My best Lent memories will always be the minimum-wage challenge shared with my friends in Bristol. But since those days I have been moving around so much that adding any specific discipline seemed like little more than additional unnecessary stress.

Nonetheless, after half a decade of consistent transition, I've developed a bit of routine in the upheaval. Things like my computer (nicknamed "maridinho" in Portuguese), my ipod and speakers, and my yoga mat, go just about everywhere with me, offering a slight sense of continuity in my constantly-changing surroundings.

One routine on which I've become frighteningly dependent is coffee. My travel coffee press, a gift from my sister-in-law and nephew (and by default my brother even though he wasn't at the store when it was procured), goes just about everywhere with me. Horror of horrors, it almost did not make it out of the Dar alive. My accompanying Starbucks mug didn't survive, but at least the coffee press did. That item will always find a spot in my suitcase, along with some good coffee, preferably Kenyan (I know, I know, I'm a very bad Brasilian. Me perdoem, irmāos!). Everywhere I go, if nothing else, I can count on my morning coffee.

So this year, my mom casually asked if I thought I'd ever give up coffee. It was an offhanded remark and I don't think she meant anything by it. But it got me to thinking, and I realised that I truly have become dependent. An addict, if you will.

So I decided that for Lent 2011, I would give up coffee. This applies to all coffee drinks but not to other coffee products (for example, coffee ice cream is OK, so when I accidentally ordered a mocha frappaccino at S'bucks instead of plain chocolate, I decided that that was not an infracture). And since Friday is the day-off in these parts, I take Friday off and drink a cup or two. I'll do an extra week after Easter so the total number of days evens out, k?

So here is what I have discovered:
  1. I am not addicted to coffee! No headaches or caffeine withdrawals ensued. And, I'd say, only 4 out of every 5 days would find me yawning or glazing over from sleepiness. Not bad.
  2. I AM addicted to the routine. Sometimes in the morning I wander around aimlessly trying to figure out what to do to get moving.
  3. While for years and years and years, I hated the smell of coffee, apparently I love it now. Smelling a colleague's coffee - especially Nescafé, strangely enough - is pure torture.
  4. The thing I most miss is the texture of the drink. Strange, eh? But tea, even tea with milk, is too watery. Hot chocolate is too creamy. Coffee is thick but not too thick. I haven't found a suitable replacement for the texture of coffee.
  5. I miss going to coffee shops. Sure, I still stop by occasionally for an iced tea or a hot chocolate, but it's not the same. I think I'm reading and writing less as a result.
  6. Even though I can't really point to any specific benefits of my coffee fast, I'm very glad I've done it. Discipline is always a good thing, even in these little tiny ways.
I'd love to hear other Lent stories - tell me what you did! tell me what you've learned!

Friday, April 15, 2011

the surreal world in which I live

Today brought a few interesting moments.

As I was walking to church on the almost-deserted streets this morning, I passed some young guys. High school or so. As I walked by, one of them said, in Arabic, "You're old but even so, you're beautiful." Would he have said that if he knew I understood? If so, was it intended as a compliment or an insult?

This afternoon I decided to take advantage of the full amenities of my posh hotel. After a jog on the treadmill overlooking the Nile, I went to the spa where I got a go in the jacuzzi and then the steam room. The Filipino woman showed me my locker in the all-women's section and pointed to a little plastic packet. "Those are some underwears for you if you would like to use them?" Seriously? I asked her if I needed to use them and she said it was optional. But after she left I took a sneak peek. They looked like disposable jock straps. That's what rich women wear? Ick.

As I walked around town today I saw a bunch of police dressed in formal whites. I wondered if they were hosting some kind of dignitary or something. But by the end of my walk I realised that all police, even the one who monitors our hotel entrance, are dressed in whites. I'm guessing that that's what police do on Fridays here?

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Living Common Good

It's funny how things sometimes come full-circle.

My job placement is in the Dar. The Dar, as I like to call it, is famous for being very troubled. After having lived there, I can also say that it is probably the closest thing to the 'end of the world' you will ever find. The town I lived in was a state capital which boasted a grand total of 2 paved roads. Surrounded by desert and wide open spaces on all sides, the only way to get there was by plane, helicopter or a 2 day drive. And, I repeat, it is the state capital. My house was nice as far as local accommodation went - we had tiled floors and that is saying a lot! Nonetheless, the rats and hedgehogs were our constant companions, the electricity was on and off and on and off, the Internet was slow as molasses (I might wait as much as an hour to load up an Imperfect Prose blog and could rarely check out photos of my nephew online). For a bathroom we had cold water, except at the end of the afternoon when the water tank was sun-heated, dry pit latrines, and outdoor sinks.

Guest House Four, my home in the Dar, was comfortable enough. We had nice mattresses, a TV and decent food. And floors. This is much more than our neighbours had.

Then something bad happened. I've written on this blog about my emotions when it happened but I can't tell you what happened, not on this blog at least. But because of what happened I had to leave the Dar. Several months of waiting brought me to a new short-term assignment. I'm in Egypt right now doing a new project. And I'm staying at a five-star hotel.

The other night I was brushing my teeth in my marbled bathroom, looking into the backlit mirror and thinking about the contrast between where I am and where I was supposed to be right now. From Guest House Four to Five Star Hotel... because something bad happened. Oh the irony, the unfairness of it all.

But I took comfort in the fact that I am working hard, very hard, here in Egypt. "At least I'm working for it", I thought. And then I immediately was struck by the fact that so many people work as hard as, harder than, me. Fifteen hours a day of breaking their backs kind of work. And they go home to a house in a slum which makes Guest House Four seem palatial at the very least. So effort has nothing to do with it.

Today with some colleagues we had a discussion about what it means to work towards the "common good". Theoretically that is a main goal of my career, and yet how do I reconcile the common good with the strange surreal life that I live?

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

first night in the Kempinski hotel

Kempinski hotels are supposed to be among the absolute best in the world, and I am in one of them. How did a lowly aid worker come to rest in the Kempinski? Well, it's a question of location, convenience, and colleagues who made a very good business deal.

I must say, however, that my first night here has been utterly exhausting. Here are a few of the highlights:

- I decided to escape briefly to the gym before moving on with my evening. This gym is on the top floor overlooking the Nile. Oh yeah! BUT... in a stroke of irony, the machines all have fancy little televisions mounted so you can watch and jog at the same time. And those little TVs blocked my view of the Nile. I call that: two perks canceling each other out.

- When I got back from the gym, I found that my butler. Yes, I'll write that again: my BUTLER. My butler... my butler had rearranged my stuff to turn down the room for the night. I'd pulled out my clothes in a rush to find my running gear and had put a pile on the bed and a pile on the chair. He'd then moved those to the closet. And he'd rearranged my shoes and stuff. This made me feel very very awkward. So I locked the door with the deadbolt and put up the do-not-disturb sign (a hanging made of leather that says "shhh").

- After my shower, I had a skype date with my lovely sister-in-law but, low and behold, the Internet had stopped working. I was connected to the network just not the Internet. Ick. So I got dressed to go down to the lobby to ask about this little inconvenience.

- I tried to open the door but nothing. Nada. That dead bolt wasn't going ANYWHERE. So I had no choice but to call my butler (with whom I have bonded in the last few hours, after all). He came and asked me to undo the deadbolt and it took me a while to explain to him that therein was the problem! After 45 minutes of four men banging and wiggling from the outside, a custodian jumped in over the balcony and opened it with ease. Stupid me - all that wiggling had loosened it up but I hadn't thought to try it again!

- The hotel manager was with the men in the hallway and when he entered, he said something along the lines of, "Yes, I guess that bolt might be a bit hard for some LADIES to turn." Oh, he got an earful from me! He offered me dinner on the house and I might have accepted but I asked to change rooms anyway and that took another two hours. I'm too tired for free dinner.

- Yes, it took two hours for them to change my room and I'm so so tired. During those two hours, fortunately, the guy did get my internet fixed - apparently my computer had to be "approved" on their system or something like that. And I called the butler once or twice to see what was going on and made a trip to the lobby to remind them I exist.

- In the new room, the first thing I did was test the deadbolt. And it was TIGHT! Not as bad as the first room, but it had that potential. So we called maintenance.

- I called room service and begged for a hamburger, nothing but a hamburger, medium instead of well-done because I'm tired. I'm waiting for that hamburger right now.

- Then I turned on the TV. It didn't work. I called the butler again. My butler has gone off duty and another guy showed up to activate my TV. He wanted to give me the whole tour of the room, which proved a bit helpful. It turns out that my movies-on-demand and my drinks in the frigobar are complimentary. Booyah. Or I could just go to sleep.

And here I am, feeling like an extremely demanding and prissy rich woman.

Dear Imperfect Prose friends, I so enjoy our community and am loving feeling that you're my friends I meet up with once a week. I know this isn't the deep sharing I try to do on Thursdays but I hope you accept it anyway. If you're wondering how many times a girl can move in a year, watch this space. This year is proving impressive. I think I'll be here in Egypt for a month.

p.s. my hamburger just came. On its own white-clothed and rose-ornamented ROLLING TABLE. I can't handle this elegance. Where's the street food?!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

restaurant review: Bread Brown

or is it Bread & Brown? the logo wasn't very clear. The poor grammar and/or misguided logo should have tipped us off from the start. I'd give this restaurant 1.5 stars out of 5:

* + *

This restaurant is in a quaint and lovely location, in the ancient souq by the seaside in the Lebanese tourist town of Jounieh. The street was quiet in the mid-afternoon hours: most of the shops were open but not bustling, creating a relaxing anbiance. All of the houses were of whitish-pinkish stone, a signature of Lebanese architecture. After every five establishments or so, there was a crack in the buildings where you could catch a glimpse of the sea beyond.

The Bread Brown is right at one of those cracks. It offers indoor seating with a pub ambiance, and outdoor café-style seating. When sitting outside you see the traditional style souq and catch a waft of sea breeze.

You also have little to no hope of getting served, because the waitress is most likely flirting with the cook or the busboy. One waitress for a restaurant of this size would only be sufficient if she were incredibly efficient: well-trained, clever and hardworking. As far as we could tell, she had none of these qualities. What she did know how to do was flirt.

After about five minutes, my friend went inside to get the menus. Five minutes later we'd made our choices but she still hadn't appeared. I poked my head in the front window and found her leaning over the bar smiling into the eyes of the cook. I caught his eye and he eventually sent her out.

Our drinks didn't come and I went in to personally collect the ice I'd requested. The food came reasonably quickly but was mediocre at best. One friend ordered the chicken burger, which she liked although it was drippy and bland. My other friend ordered the chili burger which she described as a "cooked meal in bread" and nothing at all like a burger. As for myself, I ordered fettucini alfredo and a rocca-with-mushroom salad. The rocca leaves were large and crispy and slightly sandy, which meant they'd be good as long as they had a good dressing. But the dressing was not good, it was a yellowy vinagrette. The fettucini was not good nor bad, just average, with a regular white sauce not entirely deserving of the title 'alfredo.' All in all, the meal was passable. Perhaps if our service had been good, we would have appreciated it. But it needed to be accompanied by good service.

I will say this: once the drinks finally came, my lemonade was DE-li-cious!

When we went to pay the bill, my friend said we should absolutely not tip the girl - we even had to collect our own check! So my other friend went in and a minute later came out giggling so hard - sure enough, she said, the waitress had been flirting over the espresso machine with the busboy. A few minutes later, I went in to take our payment, and there she was again, chatting it up with the busboy.

As we walked away, we figured the waitress might be smarter than we figured: she might not get tipped but at the rate she's going, she'll have a husband soon enough and he'll just pay her bills for her.