(I've changed the name from "Rants" given that I can't really rant about many things that frustrate me here, at least not without getting into some sort of trouble. As such, you'll have to wait for the book.)

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Stray Cats to Phone Cats

Of all the potential dangers of humanitarian work, there is one that is often not discussed. Many think of illness, kidnapping, banditry, etc. but one of the unthinkable risks, often perpetuated by humanitarian worker single life, is that you become compelled to show photos of your cat during breaks in meetings. I know, just the mention of it sends shudders up the spine of even the most hardened of aid workers. I should censor this blog just in case children are reading but I do think it’s fair that people are warned of the risks in case they are considering this line of work.

the old city
I’m in Istanbul. Yet another week of meetings. A while back I was talking to a fellow country director friend of mine and we were commenting about how our jobs sort of train us to not have much of an attention span. Our normal workdays are generally full of a series of interruptions, phone calls, signatures, short conversations, etc. – nothing that lasts any length of time. It’s one of the things that makes the work interesting. The down side and net effect is that I’m unused to concentrating for any length of time. Having two small children when I get home makes it worse. And I didn’t have much of an attention span to begin with. As such, trying to focus in meetings all day for two weeks plus is killing me. 
lots of Roma kids, this one particularly talented

I arrived from NY on Saturday evening via Paris. The evening cab ride to the hotel was long and slow due to traffic. I was exhausted and just wanted to get to the room, shower and go to bed. Fortunately I slept well and quickly adjusted to the time zone. The next morning had breakfast, put on my sneakers and headed out to see the city. I obviously don’t know Istanbul well. I haven’t been here since the early 90s and things have changed considerably. 
the Galata Tower, a wee bit old, built in 1348

I should say that my last trip here was different to say the least. First of all back then I arrived by ship. I was traveling with friends in Bulgaria and we’d made our way to the Black Sea coastal city of Varna. We had intended on going from there to Istanbul but as was the case for most of the trip, we hadn’t really planned out how we were going to get there. In the end we found a cargo ship that was heading to Istanbul and we paid something to climb aboard. The ship left at night and there were no accommodations so we found a place to throw down sleeping bags on the deck someplace. I don’t remember sleeping much and before too long and in the faint light of early dawn we were entering the Bosphorus Strait. Europe was to our right and Asia was to our left. The sound of the call to prayer was quite beautiful and it added to what was one of my favorite (albeit bleary-eyed) travel moments.
Flash forward over twenty years. Instead of a crappy, sweltering hot, no AC, cockroach-infested hotel, I’m in a nice, comfortable room, flat screen TV, wireless internet, gym, etc. I’ve paid my dues.
wonderful fresh-squeeze orange or pomegranate juice everywhere
I had one day to visit the city since my time would be taken up by meetings the rest of the week. It’s one of the biggest cities in the world and I decided to head out on foot with only a pathetic tourist map. Just like the ol’ days – sort of like urban orienteering. I knew where I needed to go in relation to the sun and the slope of the terrain. 

fishing from the bridge
It’s a very photogenic city but the lighting was bad. There was some sort of cloud cover all day long. I worked my way through Taksim Square, past Galata Tower and to the waterfront. The temperature was cool and nice for a walkabout. Three days later, on this same stretch of sidewalk, plain-clothed US sailors would be accosted by some Turkish nationalists.

where 14.1 million people live

policeman enjoying his job
the selfie from a well-positoned garbage can
I crossed the bridge and went into what is called the Old City (though a relative term in a city where there is so much history). The Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque are amazing but there are so many other beautiful things to see around almost every corner. I milled around in the old city, the ubiquitous stray cats also around every corner as well. Before long I headed to the coastal road, caught a taxi and went back to the hotel. It was an enjoyable afternoon but I had work to do. Time to get this week over with so I can get back to my family.
where 14.1 million cats live

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Can't Complain

There are dozens and dozens of guys in Bujumbura that have been tasked with digging a trench throughout various parts of the city. I think it’s for a fiber optic cable but I’m not sure. In any case, these mostly young men are out in the hot sun all day long with picks and shovels, whacking away at asphalt, dirt, rock, etc., their backs shiny from sweat. I have no idea what they are making but I’m not sure that I want to know. What I do know is that every time I see them, or think about them or others like them, I figureI have no right to complain about being tired. So I won’t. Let’s just say I’m less than energized right now.

As I type I’m in Istanbul, Turkey. I arrived last night after flying from New York by way of Paris. I had no sleep on the flights. I’m a bit jet-lagged. And I’m coming off a week and a day of meetings and other things that filled up my days and nights. But I'm not complaining.

fall in Central Park
Anyway, back to the previous trip. I arrived in NY about two weeks ago. I met my sister Cheryl and my niece Dara. My brother-in-law Pat would arrive the next day. My other niece, Regan, was already in town. We hit the ground running, quite literally, as we headed out for a long-ish run along the East River and into Central Park. It was my sister’s first time to the city so there was much exploring to do. That evening we attended a very nice gala fundraiser at the Mandarin adjacent to Central Park. It’s certainly not how I did my first visit to NY in 1990. Back then it was travel on the cheap. 

That Friday I abandoned family and was off to Washington DC for meetings. Woo hoo. Happy Halloween for me. I do this periodically and I’m generally glad I went once I’m done. It’s just another commitment in an already busy trip. I began with a meeting at the White House (one of the adjacent buildings no selfie with the president). The Director of Africa for the national security team and I met, along with someone from our DC office. The topic was insecurity in Burundi and a discussion of East Africa in general. As with all the meetings I had, I was impressed with the basic understanding of the situation from the start. Made it easier to jump into current issues without needing to provide much background. I realize that I don’t work in one of the world’s well-publicized hot spots so it’s not easy to assume people know what’s going on. The point, at least in part, is not to wait until things spin out of control to take an interest. Clean-up is far more expensive than prevention. 
at the fundraiser

The next meeting was with USAID and the last one was at the State Department. All three meetings went generally well and, as I said, I was glad I went. It’s 3 hours by train from NY and, like last time, I chose to return that evening. It makes for a long day but it was nice to get back to NY, particularly since I had family in town.
crossing the Brooklyn Bridge

The next day was chilly and rainy. We put on our running shoes nonetheless and headed out to explore and meet up with my nieces and their friend Fox. He lives down near the financial district so we jogged to his apartment. From there we ran across the Manhattan Bridge and back across the Brooklyn Bridge (with some hanging out here and there in between). We were pretty much getting pelted by a cold rain as we crossed the bridge and were happy to duck into a pizza place once we were done. 

World Trade Center memorial
The next day I was off to church on the west side with Priya’s and my friend Liya. I generally hang out with her a bit while I’m in town. She had a friend running the marathon later that morning so after church we had some brunch and then went to Harlem to cheer her on. As we were leaving, we needed to cross the course – not an easy task with 50k people streaming by. By a bizarre coincidence, at the moment I crossed (turning back to see if Liya had followed), my supervisor from Nairobi (and friend) happened to be running by. I know he’s a runner but didn’t know he was running the marathon this year. He told me later how much it cheered him up. I cracked up since it wasn’t intentional. What are the chances.
the marathon going through Harlem

That evening I got back to mid-town to catch up with the family, watch some Sunday night football and have a drink at the famed Campbell Apartment in Grand Central. I say “famed” but I’d never heard of it before. I looked it up though and it has an interesting history. Very cool place.

Saint John's Cathedral - surprised at how bit it is
By Monday, my meetings began and that was pretty much the last I saw of the family. I had dinner with one of our fantastic donors. I’ve known her for several years and each Christmas she sends cards to all the country directors. Scott Pelley from CBS was supposed to host us as well but he was busy preparing for the elections the next day. I’ve met him before but I don’t know him very well. In any case, it was an amazing dinner in a very small Italian place on the east side.
a drink at Campbell

Tuesday was another full day of meetings followed by a dinner with our regional team. It was yet another great dinner, this time in a Cuban place. By then most of my family had gone with about three days to go.
the ever-impressive Empire State Bldg.

Wednesday was our gala event at the Waldorf. I admit that I look forward to this every year. It traditionally has been a star-studded affair though this year was more modest by comparison, at least as far as celebrity guests. There were a few but nothing like in the past. Though disappointing for my inner “People magazine”, it did seem to show some integrity by replacing celebrities with refugee testimonies. At the last, however, our president was saying something clever about being an Englishman in NY when Sting walked up to the podium. He was supposed to be singing as he approached but he had a bit of a cold. As such he said something nice about the organization and then proceeded to thank the country directors and read the names. We stood up for applause and that was basically the end. Good evening overall.

and Sting is still pretty cool
Thursday was more of the same, including sneaking in a bit of shopping, before heading off on Friday. It was a very good trip and, though I don’t have the right to complain, I will say that the idea of heading off to another round of meetings in Istanbul with not much time to catch my breath was not an attractive thought. At least I’ll get a chance to explore a city I haven’t seen for over twenty years.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Crazy Stares

I’m sitting in a restaurant on a lunch break. The place is near the lake with a nice view of the mountains in the Congo. There is a cool breeze as I sit outside under the shelter of a large thatched roof. In front of me are two rather large hippos roaming about in the shallows of the lake. A crested crane is strutting near my table, angling for a beef skewer sitting on my plate. It’s a scene that is unlikely to be reproduced during lunch breaks later on in my career.
crappy photo with my beat up phone

It’s the rainy season and I hear the rumble of a storm heading in this direction. The rain usually comes from behind the hills that surround the eastern side of the city and they’re generally packed with thunder and lightning. And yes, I do like a good thunderstorm. The down side is that the heavy rains often dislodge homes and sometimes entire communities from their hillside perches. Deaths and/or injuries are almost a daily occurrence this time of year due to these storms.

the crested crane
Yesterday I left work a bit early to fit in a run before dark. We normally make a loop up the hill from our house, through some rather rich neighborhoods and back down the main road to the house. While I was on the top of the hill it began to dump on me. Lightning was crashing and it made the run far more interesting than usual. As I ran in front of the compound where the president lives there was a guard sitting in a guard tower with a metal roof. I felt a bit exposed running out in the open with the lightning flashing all around but he seemed to be asking for trouble way up there. He stared at me, amazed that this foreigner would be so crazy as to be jogging in the middle of a tempest. Seeing that he was particularly interested in watching me I waved, all the while thinking he was far crazier than I was.

It’s not unusual as an expat to exchange crazy stares – two strangers looking at each other thinking the other one is doing something a bit wacko. A few weeks ago we were dropping Kiran off at school. I had to move a child car seat from my vehicle to hers. Car seats are obviously not common here and it’s likely that most Burundians would see it more as an excessive comfort thing that expats do rather than a safety thing. For Burundians, due to large families (or multiple families sharing cars) and not-so-large cars, people usually pack a ton of kids in the back seat, the seatbelts stuffed far down in the crack of the seat much as it was when I was a kid. As one such car was driving by, slowing to a crawl as it crept maneuvered speed bumps, the driver and passengers stared as I unfastened the seat and carried towards Priya’s car. I looked back at them – amazed that one can fit the equivalent of an entire junior football team in the back seat of an old Toyota Corolla. Two different realities.

After nearly a decade on this continent, I’m obviously not as surprised by things as I used to be. Nonetheless, nearly every day there is something interesting that catches my attention. It’s one of the joys of working and living here. 

As the hippos have wandered off out of sight, I should sign off and wander back to the office. 

And just for fun...

Monday, September 22, 2014

Children to the Rescue

Not always easy to keep up with the blog. It’s not that there is a shortage of subject matter. Usually so much going on that I don’t have time to write it up.

On the work front, we have been continuing to deal with the aftermath of losing so many staff over the past few months. I feel we’re making progress but we have a ways to go. We have an organization coming in to work with us in dealing with trauma. In the Bujumbura office alone we have about 150 staff, most of them impacted by the deaths of their colleagues (some we’re hired more recently). Many others in our field offices have been impacted as well. 

One thing that has been important to remind staff, and they know better than I do, is that there are no shortages of ways to die in the country – certainly as compared to the Western world. This sort of thing will continue however likely not at the pace we’ve been experiencing. Ranked as one of the five poorest countries in the world (with some stiff competition), there are lots of ramifications. According to the Global Hunger Index of 2013, Burundi has an indicator ratio of 38.8, earning the nation the distinction of being the hungriest country in the world in terms of percentage (though not common, Priya and I have seen people lying on the roadside near our house unable to continue walking due to hunger). And the country ranks 181 in the world with regards to life expectancy (53). It’s a stark reality that things are challenging and there are many fronts where the battle needs to be fought (health care, road safety, food security, etc.). We’re hopeful that the elections next year will happen without major security problems and the gains in these areas will not be unraveled. 

Bwagiriza Refugee Camp

Going back to my previous field visit, I think it went pretty well. I have not been visiting the camps and our projects as often as I’d like. With the trips to Rwanda and elsewhere, plus all the official obligations in Bujumbura, it’s a challenge to make the time. I’m always glad I do, however. 

Cross stitching activity for victims of violence

I started the visit in Muyinga where we work in two camps in addition to doing other post-conflict activities with the local population. Due to the shortness of the visit, I only had a chance to have meetings with local officials and then a group meeting with the hundred or so who work in our office there. The atmosphere overall was positive even though the news I presented wasn’t all good. I do feel like the team is generally understands that management is acting in good faith and that while complaints are welcomed, people will be expected to participate in solutions as well. 

at the youth center

The next morning I was off to Ruyigi to visit one of the refugee camps as well as have a general meeting with the team there. The camp visits are usually quite enjoyable, both to see the work being done but also to interact with the refugees. One of the visits was to a project working in support of victims of violence. 

it's all fun and games until someone makes me dance

Another was to visit a school where children’s activities were being carried out during the period before the school year begins. The kids were informed in advance of my visit and had even prepared a couple of songs and dances. As usual, one of the kids works her way in my direction and dances in front of me as an encouragement for me to join in. Of course I comply (albeit briefly) which generates loads of howls, cheers and laughter from the kids as it’s apparent that I can’t dance – more strikingly so when compared with a group of Congolese. But my ineptitude adds to their fun. The energy and hope of children serve as truly good medicine.

“Man is most nearly himself when he achieves the seriousness of a child at play”.
-Heraclitus, philosopher (500 BC)