Tuesday, December 27, 2005


Yesterday I learned that my beloved Uncle Duke who inspired this blog and has always encouraged me to write and share my experience has died. Please keep his family in your thoughts and prayers. He was a force of a man with a heart of gold, and he will be missed.

From now on, this blog will be written in the memory of Richard "Duke" Schneider, who was one of the first people to call me a writer and mean it.

Yarn Harlot: Diversity

Yarn Harlot: Diversity

In today's world, full of blind ambition, greed, violence, crime, and despair, the last thing that we need to be doing is threatening and criticizing those who speak plainly about tolerance.

May 2006 find all of us being agents of peace and activists for justice in our communities, with the shared objective of building a world where all have equality of opportunity. We did not select our birth. We did not dictate our culture. We are not responsible for who our parents are, or what skin color we have, or what language we speak. However, as adult human beings with free will, we are each responsible for requiring of ourselves excellence in kindness and sincerity in compassion , regardless of whom we are dealing with.

And that is true regardless of your religious beliefs or lack thereof.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Kansas, alas

This article from Scientific American by John Rennie is great. Finally, someone is calling a spade a spade in this "intelligent design" conflict.

Seriously folks -- when we have gotten to the point where idiots are in charge of education, we have a major problem in our country. This at a time in the world when it is more important than ever for Americans to excel at science and math and technology to compete in the global labor market.

The next thing we know, they'll put it in the grammar books that "y'all" is the correct plural for "you".

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

From Lincoln's First Inaugural Address

"This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it, or their revolutionary right to dismember or overthrow it."

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

They never cease to amaze me


This article talks about the administrations attempts to ensure that legislation prohibiting torture and inhumane abuse of detainees does not apply to the CIA, which probably employs those techniques more than any other organization in the US government.

I understand that we are at war with an enemy that would and has gladly, at times gleefully, tortured and abused Americans and our allies. I abhor them and their methods as much as anyone. And for that, as well as several other reasons, I cannot stomach the idea of giving free reign to our CIA to behave that way.

Sunday, October 02, 2005


Before and upon arriving in Cairo, our Egypt office asked several times if I could work on Saturday night, and told me over and over again to meet the driver at 5pm sharp outside the hotel for a trip to meet a local partner and see a project site. No problem, I said each time. So I meet up with my colleague and the driver (wondering why my colleague needed to leave her suitcases in my room and was carrying such a large backpack with her) outside the hotel, and hop in the car for what I thought was going to be a car ride to somewhere in the city, but ended up being a ride to the train station. My mind was clicking and buzzing trying to figure out what was going on, but nothing popped into place until I asked my colleague why she had a big backpack, and she mentioned that I was a light packer. Aha, grr, argh, we were SPENDING THE NIGHT AND NO ONE TOLD ME? Ok, I’m a pretty flexible person, but they could have told me – that would have been the nice, normal, thoughtful, and responsible thing to do. So we ran out to get me a toothbrush and toothpaste, hoping that the hotel would have the normal stash of toiletries and hopped on the train for El Minya.

The train ride was relatively uneventful and normal, full of stimulating conversation among my colleague and I. We arrived at the cute town of Minia and the Hotel Aton just in time to crash into our beds, dreaming of the Nile.

Minia, or El Minya, is a beautiful town on the Nile, built of curlicued old decorated-cake buildings, now fallen into disrepair, and the standard concrete third-world architecture that makes globalization ugly. There is much less traffic and pollution there than Cairo, and the pace is more manageable. Our hotel is located just on the Nile, overlooking which we ate our breakfast and watched the relentless sun rise above the escarpment in the distance. It was out of a book, really. Maybe out of this book.

One thing that I didn’t mention was that when the guards at the train station realized that we were three women traveling alone (my colleague and I were accompanied by another, Egyptian, colleague who worked on the project we were about to see), he insisted on sending one of his men along with us on the three-hour train ride as our bodyguard. We insisted that it was unnecessary, but the guy came along anyway, following us doggedly to the hotel. This bodyguard thing was a sort of theme on the Minia trip, as we will see.

After our breakfast, we met up with a fourth woman colleague and headed off to pick up the partner staff and go meet some clients of the project. Again, we were beset by a bodyguard, this time in the form of four guys from the partner organization staff, complete with HF radios. Just in case what? Anyway, we went to a village just outside of Minia, and met four women who have loans out with our microfinance program.

I want you to understand that these are normal women. Two were in their forties, two in their late thirties (although all four of them looked younger than me – are they on to something?), and they were just trying to get by, any way they could. They took the risk of getting a small loan and starting a small business because the risk was worthwhile – if they didn’t take it, they would remain nearly desperately poor, and if they did, even if it didn’t work out, how much worse could things really get? That’s not to say that this project is perfect, or even really that good (although as microfinance projects go, it isn’t a bad one), but just that there are normal women, just like me, just like some of you. They may or may not be natural entrepreneurs, but they’re making a go of it anyhow. They used the money to invest in their microbusinesses, which included small livestock-raising and dairy production. We wondered what their husbands thought, and the only one we met said that he was proud of his wife, and glad to help her out, but we still wondered.

I emphasize their normality really to make my point that development assistance frequently treats the poor as guinea pigs, cavalierly testing methodologies and complicated “solutions” on them. Oops – that didn’t work, and now you’re being beaten by your husband and you’re worse off? Sorry ‘bout that. We’ll try something else next time. And there they are, increasingly dependent on our intervention, their human dignity stripped from them as we pooh pooh their inherent smarts as not being as good as ours. Give me a break. I watched one of the women as she rhythmically shook an inflated sheepskin full of buffalo milk back and forth from where it was tethered, making cheese and butter. Can you make cheese and butter that way? Neither can I. I hated the idea that she or anyone else like her, anyone else like me, would be forced to live grasping at a dollar-bill lifeline that could be pulled up at any time. Oops – sorry, we had to end that program because They cut our funding. Better luck next time!

After our pleasant/weird visit to the clients, we and our entourage of bodyguards went up to Beni Hassan, a Pharaonic archeological site. Up on the escarpment, just beyond the sharp end of the oasis around the river, there are a series of caves, some man-made and some natural. The natural ones are hideouts for bandits, but the man-made ones are burial sites for wealthy Egyptians from the 11th and 12th dynasties, or some 3,000 years ago or more.

The tourism ministry has set up a nice little welcome center that was empty when we arrived. To get onto the path up the hill to the caves, we had to walk through a rickety, dusty, and, given the fact that there was no electricity at the moment, completely useless metal detector, and have our bags inspected. Whatever. If they had put up a wooden arbor covered in flowering vines, it would have been equally useful but much prettier.

The caretaker allowed us into two of the tombs. It was really overwhelming to stand there in a site older than anything that I had ever experienced, looking at vivid wall paintings that the caretaker’s completely fictional explanations could not have obscured.
He told us that Egyptians were doing yoga in this picture (yoga was formalized thousands of years after the Egyptian pharaonic period), and hockey in that picture (yeah, right). We did see the hairdressing that he spoke about, and the monkeys in the fig tree.


Cairo was my base of operations in Egypt, as it unfortunately is for most tourists (but I’m not really a tourist, per se). Cairo has some wonderful nooks and crannies, but my lasting impression of it was the pollution clogging my sinuses and lungs, mind boggling traffic, and the sad decay of once beautiful places. It is definitely worth a visit, especially if you have wonderful friends living there to take you to the secret spots, but don’t plan to stay long unless you have a gas mask.

I have two very cool and accommodating friends in Cairo, who enthusiastically took on the tour guide role during the first two days I was there. The first day, we wandered around Islamic Cairo, a warren of alleys that have housed shops and cafes for ages, and don’t look all that different than they did hundreds of years ago, except they are disrupted by the occasional car. Even the foreigners wandering around (mostly lost and hampered with bags of purchases) probably have their analogs in history.

Behind the busy and crowded storefronts, you can see the remnants of layers of beautiful and old buildings, built on and around one another over time. The walls of arches over the alleys are decorated with intricate carvings, many of which incorporate typical Arabic artistry using Arabic script and quotes from the Koran. I wonder what was inside of those walls, what houses and private spaces they protected. We had lunch on the second floor of a set of shops, on a balcony overlooking an alley occupied by a couple of shisha sellers. It was great to be able to look down and observe the wandering and bargaining while I ate my falafel and chatted about life in Cairo with my friends.

During our wanderings, we entered, after some discussion between one of my friends and the guard that included us leaving after ten minutes and something about a mysterious engineer, an historic mosque that once linked two major madrassas and has what may be the tallest minaret in the city. The building is stunning: tall walls, arched hallways lit by old hanging lamps, a huge courtyard with four wings, a central fountain, and vivid stained glass windows. The painting on the walls and ceiling was so intricate that we wondered out loud who the poor bastards tasked with that tedious but magnificent job were. We also wondered about the pressure that must have been on the guy or guys who were responsible for carving a quote from the Koran around the courtyard wall so that it ended exactly at the corner where the last wall met the first.

We spent our ten minutes just looking around and trying to get photos that would capture it. Then, in blatant defiance of our guard’s warning (we weren’t really worried), we started the epic climb up the endless stairs to the top of the minaret. Step after step up the ancient stairs, through spots so dark you lose a sense of your own height and position in space, and out into the riotously bright afternoon sun, we went. Upon arriving at the top, the effort was made worthwhile by the view: a panorama of Cairo, old and new, shrouded with smog but still fascinating in its inclusion of thousands of hears of history. We breathed hard as we stood there just taking it in: the view and the smog alike.

The smog is really unbelievable. It isn’t as bad as Dhaka in Bangladesh, but it is almost there. It is so offensive and makes just breathing in Cairo so annoying that it feels like the city wants you to leave and never come back. Supposedly, the US government funded a clean air project here several years ago: you’d never know it. If this is better, how was it before?

The next day, we took off on the remarkably clean and efficient metro to the Coptic section of town. The Coptic Church is a branch of Catholic Christianity. Christianity in Egypt pre-dates Islam by many centuries, and the Coptic section is also known as Old Cairo. Many would probably mistake a Coptic Church for a Greek Orthodox Church. There are no statues, only icons, and the sanctuary is surrounded by an intricately carved high wooden screen. We visited the Hanging Church, the Church of Al-Mo’allaqa, which is built over a bastion of an ancient Roman fortress. It is called the Hanging Church because it kind of hangs over the bastion, and the empty spaces inside the bastion now form the basement of the church. The inside is beautiful, with intricately carved wooden elements, beautiful icons from various periods, and walls covered in colorful murals. Through the glass inserts scattered through this oldest and very significant Coptic church, you can look down directly into human history; I could have stood there for hours asking, “How the heck did we get from there to here?”

In addition to this church, we also briefly visited another Coptic church, a mosque, and a synagogue. What struck me most were the similarities between the three types of buildings. All three religions use Arabic script, are decorated with intricate carving and murals, and prohibit statues. All three types of building have similar architectural shapes, as well as a pulpit somewhere in the middle, raised up above the congregation’s space and accessed by steps. This may be the period, of course, as they were all last remodeled probably around the same time by people who were all heavily influenced by the same outside factors, but it just made me think about the number of wars fought over religion when in many ways, we all have a lot more in common than we’ve preferred to believe.

We ended the day smoking a shisha and drinking coffee in the neighborhood where another friend of ours once lived, watching the little girls being ferried home from school, packed into cars like sardines.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Cows Fly

That is certainly what I feel like these days when traveling by plane. I’ll never understand how they can live with themselves making people travel with so little dignity, but I suppose the airline execs all travel First Class.

The seats are so small, I, a relatively small person, cannot get comfortable. Most people aren’t small, most Americans even less so. Yet here we sit, stuffed like sardines, patiently or not so patiently leaving aside decorum and personal space, sleeping (in the most unfortunate cases drooling) on the shoulders of the stranger with whom we are in more intimate contact than seen on most first dates.

Health authorities and Katie Couric tell us that we should get up regularly on long-haul flights to walk around. This is to prevent death by embolism or something. Someone who also flies coach will have to tell me how it is that one is supposed to get up regularly when in the middle of that loathsome bank of five seats, when the others stuffed in on either side of them are asleep. One gets little enough sleep on a plane – I have no desire to steal any of those restful moments from a fellow passenger just to walk around.

They have recently discontinued free meals and the little pillows and blankets from domestic flights. Airlines are going bankrupt, so they have to charge for a slice of cheese in stale bread ($5.00) and a mini Coke ($5.00). Airlines are going bankrupt, so they have to put more people in the plane, and therefore have to carry less extra weight, so there go the pillows and blankets. So, our stomachs rumble as we freeze to death. The experts tell us to drink plenty of water so as to not get dehydrated on the flight, but who is stupid enough to pay $5.00 for water?

Today, I was told by the woman checking me in that I was only allowed five pounds of weight as carry on. This, to me, is the height of indecency. My laptop alone weighs 4 pounds. Then what about all the other things one needs on the flight? Book: at least 1 pound. Toiletries (including feminine items): at least 1 pound. Oops! I’m over. Forget that really expensive digital camera – I’ll have to trust that an underpaid baggage handler in some backwater airport doesn’t need one today. Forget the pen and crossword book, the crochet project, the extra underwear and change of clothing.

So now, I will be a sleepless and slimy sardine on my arrival to Georgia via a very long layover in Munich, since I forewent the toiletries on this one. Maybe the day room in the hotel will have something I can at least bathe with, although since I also gave up my change of clothing, I’ll just have to climb back into dirty clothes.

And people tell me that all my traveling sounds so romantic. Let me tell you something: airports nearly stimulate tears for me now, as I imagine the indignities and insults I will face during my trip, layover after layover, in increasingly small planes with increasingly smelly fellow passengers. I don’t see how we can do anything to change the situation. We need to travel now, in our globlized world, and fuel prices and liability insurance are exorbitant on the airlines. They need more passengers and lower costs, and we need more flights. It is a match made in hell.

Thursday, September 22, 2005


I’ve been having some trouble getting started on this description of my time in Tbilisi; I didn’t really have a chance to get a good sense of the place, and don’t really see an obvious entry point to it. The thing that I liked the best about Tbilisi was the food, so I’ll try starting there, and see where we go.

Georgian food is really amazing. Historically, it isn’t surprising that it is so varied and creative. Georgia, over its history, was on the silk and spice roads from east to west. Just about anything can grow in its varied climates, and the country has been part of the Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, and Soviet empires. Migrations and wars brought them into contact with many cultures of Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

Some of the signature tastes of Georgian food are walnuts, paprika, and pomegranate. Red bell peppers, mushrooms, and eggplants provide the vehicle for pureed spreads of walnut and spices. Some of my favorite things were the minted cheese wrapped with pastry and soaked in minted yogurt, lamb-stuffed ravioli stewed in broth and topped with a bread lid, and the walnut and pomegranate stuffed braised trout.

Tbilisi is a very interesting city, and I feel that it was a shame that I didn’t get more time to explore the museums and older parts of it. The architecture ranges from a fortress built in the 13th or 14th century and religious buildings almost as old to post-Soviet modern glass buildings. On my last day there, one of the drivers took me sightseeing around Tbilisi and Mtsket, the old capital. It became clear why, as people in the office told me, Georgia was considered the tourism capital of the Soviet Union. Along the river and in the hills, there are beautiful buildings, decorated with intricately carved wooden balconies, and there are restaurants everywhere.

I found three buildings particularly interesting: town hall, a church, and the ministry of transportation. Town hall in Tbilisi looks like it was built during the period of heavy French influence, in the mid-19th century. My driver, however, insists that it is only 50 years old, and was built to look like it was very old. This remains to be confirmed, but that seems like an interesting story – why someone would go to the trouble and expense of building a town hall in the Soviet period to look like it was very old. I wonder if it has something to do with the tourist reputation of the country – it may have needed a town hall that was in keeping with its romantic image.

The Church we went to was beautiful and very very old. The driver who was with me thinks that it was probably built in the 15th or 16th century, but I think from being inside that it was built over at least two churches built previously. Georgia is made up mainly of Georgian Orthodox and Russian Orthodox Christians, and the church was set up like a Greek Orthodox church would be, with the altar behind a beautiful screen. The walls were painted with very intricate murals, but up to about six feet off the ground, all the faces were rubbed out of the saints, all the way around on every mural. I asked the driver why, but he just laughed at me and shook his head. Hmmm. The entire church was stunningly painted and carved and inlaid. Some of the interior walls had crumbled in places, revealing an earlier structure that was a bit smaller, and there were places in the floor covered with glass to reveal an even earlier site below.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Sarajevo 2

Today, I bought a rug from a friend of my colleague here. The rug shop owner is an energetic and fun Bosnian who speaks great English. He is a friend to many expats here, including the US ambassador, because he is honest and has a real talent in finding and restoring antique rugs. He told a similar story about the beginning of the war as the staff member who took me to the center. He lived in a building with Bosnians, Serbs, and Croats. They were friends and drank coffee together and their children played together. Then one day, he heard that people were killing each other, and mistrust set in instantly. They were at war, and his friends were his enemies. He couldn’t understand why so few Americans seem to understand how the war started; I explained that we hadn’t even heard the tip of the iceberg about it, and the few Americans could even tell you whose side we were on in the conflict. He shook his head, dragged on his cigarette, and went to tend a customer.

This city is a human and architectural and political textbook on war and its aftereffects. The conflict and horror and mistrust are only millimeters below the surface – where before the war, it was a diverse and relatively integrated place, it is now a place of careful friendship, suspicions, and identity politics. But amidst all that, it is a beautiful and fun and cosmopolitan place.

Monday, September 19, 2005

What would Jesus do? Not this.

Read this.

I'll have to write about it later. I just don't know where to start now.

One more thing to add to the list of ways Bush is undermining not only America and our American life so hard won, but basic human compassion and global community.

I will not be surprised when he postpones the next presidential election for some trumped up reason. Maybe that's when we'll go to war with Iran or N. Korea. You call me paranoid now, but mark my words -- the man is up to no good. So far, this story reads like any classic Latin American or African dictator, and all too much like The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. But I've been saying that for five years now.

Saturday, September 17, 2005


Today we went out to visit a collective center in Jablanica (pronounced “yablahNEETZah”. Collective centers are the Bosnian version of refugee camps, and internally displaced people have been living in these places for ten to fourteen years. During the war, people being persecuted from all ethnic groups fled their hometowns to places where they were relatively safe. The towns they arrived at allowed them to occupy abandoned factories or schools or other types of buildings, temporarily. After the war ended, aid agencies provided more adequate temporary shelter and some services to the people who were in these places, and they became collective centers or refugee camps.

Supposedly, the people living in these places were eventually supposed to go home, and the governments of the two autonomous entities, the Serb Republic and the Federation of Herzegovina, tried to close them. The Serb Republic claims to have closed all of them, but really they just changed the name to Transition Centers. Until our organization began its project in these centers two years ago, very few people had gone home, in spite of having been offered reconstruction and other assistance through ours and other international development groups.

There are many reasons that people are reluctant to leave. First and foremost, they are scared. They have lived in these camps with these people for a very long time now. They have gotten jobs, maybe, or at least gotten accustomed to receiving assistance. Their children may be in schools near the centers. It is hard to get up the courage to make a change again at this point, even if they could count on their place of return being safe and secure for them, but many don’t.

It is nearly impossible for me to imagine what it would be like to face a return like this. Almost all of the people in the centers lost members of their families, many in their very homes, were the opposing army broke in and killed men, women, or children in front of other family members. Some women were raped in their own homes. Many were persecuted by the neighbors they had known and drank coffee with for years. Those homes must seem almost haunted now with the hellish memories; going there must violently tear any scars right open again. I can’t even believe that anyone would go back. Add that to the uncertainty that they will have any services in their old town or a job, and you can easily imagine why they would prefer to stay.

On the way drive to and from the center, the woman who took us, who manages the program for the returnees, told us her experience of the war. She is the daughter of a Muslim (Bosniak) and an Orthodox (Serb). Her father had spent much of his life as a career soldier in Yugoslavia, and ended up in Sarajevo. They grew up with friends from all of the religious groups, and such differences were barely worth mentioning. Then one day, they started to hear reports of Muslims murdering Serbs. It wasn’t easily believable for them, and they later found out that these first reports weren’t actually true. At some point, and I’m not sure where, because the story came out of chronological order, her Serbian extended family in Serbia called them to let them know that they had sent their sons to be soldiers with the Serbian army “to save them” from the Muslim atrocities. Her father tried to explain that that wasn’t what was happening, and that the Serb army was committing the atrocities and blaming them on the Muslims to create unrest. No one in Serbia believed him because they were getting fake information from the government.

Her father and brothers left to defend Bosnia as soldiers. She felt useless at home, so she ran away and also joined the army without telling them. She had no formal training, so they trained her as a nurse. She was seventeen (one year older than I). For several years during the conflict, I think that she said five years, she worked on the front lines in Sarajevo. She showed us the building where she lived, and the building where she worked. They were right across the street from the Serb army, and remain scarred with bullet holes today. To get from her apartment to the hospital (which they had set up in an abandoned grocery store), she had to run a gauntlet of five Serb snipers.

When the war was over, she made a decision to leave the army and the conflict behind. She says that she still hasn’t been able to really forgive her neighbors and other Serbs she knew for turning against Bosnia like that, for falling prey to paranoia and propaganda. She said that she tries not to hate, and recognizes that there are good and bad people in every group, but that she still has a hard time trusting. All of this is inside of her every day, when she helps both Serbs and Bosnians resettle. She helps them all equally, but says that the hardest thing about her job is going to Srebrenica, where Serbs massacred Bosnians during the war, and the grief remains fresh in the minds of the minority Bosnians she takes back to their homes there. She feels culpable for renewing their pain when they walk the haunted and reconstructed halls of their old homes or old land.

I nearly broke down in tears listening to her. There we were, two women, driving a car along a highway surrounded with some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen, talking about the sheer horror and inhumanity that she witnessed. The hardest thing I have ever dealt with was the death of one person in my life. I can’t even imagine watching death the way she did every day for five years. She seems old, and I seem naïve. She is married now, to a Macedonian, and has a four-year-old daughter.

Walking around Sarajevo, the leftovers from the war are everywhere. On the path along the river, you can see where people were shot to death. A line of bullet holes leads to a small, person-sized spot where all the shots converge. From the angle of the shots, you can look up and see which window in the building across the street they came from. The spots became like vacuums for me, spaces where a person should be.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Sarajevo 1

I arrived here in Sarajevo, Bosnia, after a long flight through Munich. Down the precarious steps out of the small plane, into the recently refurbished airport that already smelled like my Nana's apartment - stale cigarettes and dust. The airport gleamed in its newness, and even though it is small, it is pretty nice. The driver, who speaks nary a word of English, dropped me off at the cute little Hotel Gaj (pronounced "guy") tucked behind a cute pair of restaurants (Vinonteka and Pizzeria Gaj). The hotel reception is managed by these two young girls who are really nice behind their unbelievable makeup. I wonder how they can get their eyelids open with that much mascara.

The office is in many ways an allegory for the city as a whole. It is off a side street of a side street, in a huge building that at one time seems to have been covered with pink stucco, but now is stripped to bare brick. It looks like it is about to crumble, and you can see all over it the pock marks left by bullets and shrapnel. Inside, however, it is overwhelmingly modern. Brand new everything, metal and marble and gleaming clean glass. High speed internet, business people in suits, a coke machine. The difference is surreal, and does not go unnoticed by the staff here.

All over the city, you see buildings wrecked by the war. Beautiful old Austro-Hungarian period buildings with their wedding-cake flourishes and horrid Soviet-chic towers of concrete alike were bombed, bulleted, and burnt. Right beside them, however, are brand-new towers of glass and steel, or newly rehabilitated historic buildings. Art galleries and restaurants and offices function like nothing ever happened, but the scars are not even close to being healed. The whole place seems stretched between an Eastern history that is painful and frightening and a possible European future that holds promise and challenges. It can't be easy.

The city is situated in a valley, surrounded by many rolling green hills, dotted with square two- or three-story houses with sloped tile roofs. It is really beautiful, especially last night. As we walked to dinner at the cozy and good Italian restaurant Fellini, the sun set from behind us, casting a peachy glow down the main street of the city center and out onto the hill in the distance, emphasizing its greenness and the romance of the little houses.

It seems to me that few streets run straight here, and even fewer flat. It is a maze of twisting old lanes, barely one car wide, sometimes not even that. How people find their way around is beyond me. It seems almost as though the city is trying to keep its secrets hidden, a labyrinth challenging you to look a little deeper for the real thing.

They have electric busses that must be older than I am, running on their overhead wires. I love that. There are public gardens and parks that are cared for -- this, I tell you, is one of the key indicators of development. People stop at the traffic lights, and stay stopped until they turn green.

I could stay here for weeks and never tire of exploring and learning about this fascinating city and the amazing people in our office.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Death of a Revolutionary

This morning John Garang, the leader of Southern Sudan's rebel movement the SPLM, was killed in a helicopter crash.

Regardless of what you think about revolutions, rebel movements, or the Southern Sudanese, John Garang was a unique and powerful character. He managed, albeit by an iron hand, a successful war to gain increased autonomy for Southern Sudan. In the wake of that war, 2 million died, mostly of disease and starvation, and the jury is out as to whether it was worth it.

This conflict has always made me ask myself when do people finally say enough is enough and choose war to effect change? And how can war effect positive change when the human costs are so high?

For the sake of everyone in Sudan, let's hope that the new leader of the SPLM continues Dr. Garang's commitment to the peace accords, and manages to reign in the riots in response to his death.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Lima, Peru

I'm sitting in the VIP lounge in the airport in Lima, Peru. I'm not usually a VIP at the airport, and I am entirely grateful for the spread of juice and snacks and coffee, since my midnight flight to Atlanta has been postponed until 3 am, and by then I will have been here for six hours.

Lima is a good city, at least the parts of it that I saw. It charmed me and reminded me why I had fallen in love with South America almost ten years ago.

It is winter here now, and the skies have been uniformly overcast since I've been here, but there has been almost no rain, just a London-like mist once in a while. Not enough for an umbrella, just enough to be romantic for the first 15 minutes and to be annoying thereafter. The weather is cool, but the humidity makes it feel like the mist gets under your clothes to stay there and torment you all day. The weather makes the city feel comfortably melancholy.

I always love to look at the architecture when I ride in cars around a new city. A city's architecture and geography are like the lines and expressions of a face -- in them, you can see the story, illustrated. In Lima, most of the buildings are the same rebar-concrete-tile concotions that populate lower and middle class neighborhoods worldwide. Colorful paint and careful gardens do nothing to make these boxy things elegant. They cram together on the road almost fearfully, suspiciously. But then you get the pleasure of seeing the coy little post-colonial or 19th century house, peeking out from the phalanx with a wink of dramatic windows and doorframes. That is the reward for keeping one's face to the taxi window.

Our office is in the Miraflores municipality of Lima. This area is mostly a shopping district, with some cool stores and restaurants, some things for tourists, and some hotels. It isn't bad, but it isn't the place you'd want to live, necessarily, although it is a chic neighborhood. I stayed in the La Paz Aparthotel, and recommend it, except for the atrocious coffee. They were very friendly. I had a basic suite, with a kitchenette and stocked minifridge. Miraflores has a few nice antique shops, so if that is your thing, check out the places on La Paz, just in front of the hotel. It is safe to walk around, even to a reasonable hour at night, as long as you keep your city wits about you. A place I highly recommend for a drink and light Cuban food is the Club de Habana, on Manuel Bonilla. It is actually run by a young Cuban guy, and the clientele is friendly, the decor warm and comfy, and the food is great. Just next door, they have a gallery space where they show work from local artists.

A colleague took me to Barranco, a part of town with more historic buildings and a reputation for a bohemian culture. I could imagine the bohemians of Lima concocting their schemes for bringing down the dictatorship in cafes, smoking endless cigarettes. We walked all over the area, which is beautiful, especially in the early evening, and stopped finally for a drink at a cool place called Posada del Angel. It is full of strange antiques and painted riotous colors. The food is good, but the service is painfully slow. It is worth a trip, though. Also, all along the aqueduct, there are little restaurants where you can get a good meal, just like hundreds of tourists visiting the beach before you for decades past. We also went shopping, of course, to a lovely but expensive store called Dedalo. Local artists sell their craft work there -- not your typical artisan crafts, but more modern, high-quality, home decor stuff. It is expensive, but they have very nice things.

The next day, we went to a museum of Peru's history (I was ill, so I don't remember the name of the museum). It is in the San Isidro section of town, which is a flat stretch of little one- and two-story houses around plazas. The museum is in the home of Simon Bolivar in Lima, which is huge. It is very well curated for a museum of its type, and has all kinds of cool exhibits from the pre-Incan cultures to the present. I loved the textiles they had, and was fascinated by the most recent exhibit on the Fujumori years. I recommend a trip there if you get a chance -- but wear comfortable shoes, as it is big and you could easily spend a couple of hours there. After the museum, cross the street to the old tavern and get a Cusquena beer. We didn't because I felt horrible, but supposedly it is nice. This tavern is one of the oldest in Lima, continually operating.

So, on the whole, it was a good trip. The proposal went ok, everyone in the office was great, good hotel, interesting city. I recommend a trip to Lima.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Pennsylvania Road Trip Vacation

Since July 4th is all about the United States’ independence and being patriotic, the Professor and I planned a domestic vacation. His parents invited us to hang out with them in a cabin in Cook Forest for a couple days, during which time we could visit with some of their family. We decided to take the long way up and a longer way back, to see some more of the state.

On the way up, we took 83 to Shrewsbury, where we stopped at the Shrewsbury Antique Center. The Center is packed with really great vendors, selling everything from old farm tools to old books to old clothes. If you like antiques, you should make a side trip there on your way into PA.

We also stopped at Homan’s General Store. The Professor took advantage of their coffee, and I wandered around to see what they sold. Being in there, I could imagine what it would be like to live in a small town and go to the store, where you knew the kid who worked there and his family.

The next stop was the Penn State Creamery. Go there. They serve the best ice cream ever – and I’ve had a lot of ice cream in my life! Penn State’s Food Science program runs the Creamery, where they sell ice cream, milk, cheese, yogurt, and other milk products, as well as snacks and coffee. It is all very high quality, and I can’t say enough how much we enjoyed our Bittersweet Mint and Coffee with chocolate chips. My Mom would have loved the Mint, because it has the shaved chocolate instead of chips that she loved. We liked it so much, we returned on our way back for more ice cream, cheese, and iced tea. Yum.

We rolled out of the creamery in the direction of the Bellefonte KOA, where we pitched our tent. The campground was packed with RVs spewing noisy, excited kids. We followed the imps to the pool and took a swim. There was this one kid who kept doing cannonballs and other fancy jumps into the pool. Over and over, in, out, run jump, laugh. He was having a great time, and instead of being annoying, as those things sometimes can be, it was really fun to watch, and reminded us of how much fun we had doing the same thing as kids.

After cleaning up and relaxing for a bit, we went to The Tavern Restaurant in State College for dinner. It reminded me of the Townhouse in Media a little bit. The service and the food were good. I enjoyed my Cajun chicken, and the Professor had good pork loin. We highly recommend the spinach salad. In spite of the good food, though, I think that this place had the worst wine list I have ever seen. Most places that don’t have a good wine selection don’t bother to put it on a list, but this place unabashedly waved its horrid wine selection in one’s face. Get a Pilsner, instead.

Breakfast the next morning was fabulous. We went down to Bellefonte, a cute Victorian town, and ate at Jabco’s Mill Race Café. The Professor had fluffy pancakes and I had French toast, both of which were great. It was our waitress’s first day at work, and she did a great job. We ate outside on the porch overlooking the mill race, which was really pleasant. The café is next to the railroad, just across from the visitor’s center.

On our way up to Cook’s Forest, we stopped by Mount Nittany Vineyard and Winery. The drive to the vineyard was beautiful, following small roads through outrageous green fields and trees. We tried several wines, which were ok. We liked the bought a few bottles, including one bottle of their blueberry wine. Now, I’m not usually into fruit wines, but this one, made only of blueberries, no grapes, was actually really nice, and will make a great desert wine on a summer evening.

We arrived at the cabin in Cook’s Forest for dinner of barbeque and a fun evening of hanging out around the fire roasting marshmallows and playing games. We stayed in the cabin with the Professor’s parents and brother and sister-in-law and their baby. The little guy is so cute! He is almost walking, and crawls at turbo speed, giggling and chattering to everyone along the way.

While in Clarion County, PA, we visited with various members of the family of the Mother of the Professor. They were all very nice and welcoming people. I had been worried that I would feel like I was on display, but I actually felt very accepted and welcomed. Most of the family still lives in the area, some in the ancestral family homes, and some just meters away from their parents and siblings. One of the Professor’s Aunts is an expert quilter. When we went to visit her, she showed us some of the things she had done recently. They were really beautiful.

On the fourth of July, we all packed into the cars and drove to the Lucinda Church Picnic. The Church, St. Joseph, hosts a fair and dinner each year, and has done so now for over 60 years. In the Church parking lot, booths provided ample opportunity to “donate” money, with a chance to win everything from quilts to camp chairs to baked goods.

We bought some raffle tickets for the quilt raffle, put in a few bids on the Chinese auction for camp chairs and a big tent, and then the Professor, that intrepid gambler that he is, won us a loaf of lemon poppyseed bread at the baked goods stand! It is yummy.

The dinner was a true experience. Each person buys a numbered ticket for $6.50. if you want to sit with your friends or family, you need to make sure that your ticket numbers are close, because they seat by number, filling up the tables again as people finish eating. We waited until about 13 members of the family were around, and went in with the 500 group.

Inside, the hall is full of long tables, all set with homemade noodle soup, water, and bread. The noodle soup is a big hit in Lucinda, and there were signs everywhere outside, announcing that the soup was not available for separate sale this year. It lived up to its reputation! Perfectly salty and warm and delicious. The bread was good, too.

The menu for the dinner:
Wheat bread
Homemade noodle soup
Mashed potatoes
Roasted chicken

And the pies. When you walk into the hall, before you sit down, you select your slice of pie. There are more types of homemade pie than you can imagine. I had my first-ever strawberry rhubarb pie, and the Professor had cherry. Oh, it was good. All of the food was wonderful, and we tottered out of the hall full to bursting and happy.

That evening, we went over to Wolfe's Corners fair with the family to watch a horse pull. This was a truly cultural experience; both the Professor and I felt as though we were in a different country. Work horses, which stand several feet taller than an average man, are harnessed to a sled that is piled with concrete blocks. They compete to see which team of two can pull the most weight for 27 feet of distance. I think that they topped off near 7,800 pounds or something. It was amazing. These horses were straining and sweating and beautiful, and they generally worked in tandem with three men controlling the reigns and the metal rigging that connected them to the sled.

It was interesting to watch the people. We were, as far as I could tell, the only people there taking photos. Most of the men wore jeans, some wore work shirts or t-shirts, a few were shirtless, and many had beards or other facial hair. The women were dressed in a variety of ways, from conservative to small and tight approximations of hiphop video dancers. It was fun, and we rooted for a horse team that we liked, and were satisfied that they did well, and another team that we liked won.

I highly recommend a trip to Cook’s Forest. The forst itself is beautiful, you can rent a nice cabin (from Vince, owner of Stone Crest cabins and the Briar Hill furniture place), and do all sorts of outdoor-type activities. Stone Crest has great cabins.

We took an even longer way back, down 80 to Lewisburg, where we took 15 south to Selinsgrove, and found our way to the Foxboro B&B. I had called a number of B&Bs on the way, and this one was the cheapest and the woman seemed nice. It looked convenient to our next-day activities, so we went with it.

The B&B is in a modular log cabin home, which was very nice. Too nice. The Professor even thought that it was spooky how nothing was out of place and everything was insanely clean. Then we figured out that the owners were evangelical Christians, and that most of the people who passed through the place shared that bent. Well, then it was freaky, but still really nice. The Weavers seem like perfectly nice people, and Mrs. Weaver’s breakfast was delicious. But that almost makes it worse, because even then, everything was “just so”. It was a nice place to stay, but I wish that we had known about the religious thing before we went. Plus, she doesn’t take credit cards, which was a little annoying.

That night we had dinner at BJ’s Barbeque. We don’t recommend the BJ’s Ale, but the food was good. The plates are loaded, so share a meal – no healthy person should be able to eat that much in one sitting. Try the Frickles.

After breakfast, we circled back north on 15, across 45 to Mifflinburg, hitting some farmers’ markets and whatnot on the way.

Before we reached Miffilnburg, we went to the Joseph Priestly House. Dr. Priestly was a contemporary of Thomas Jefferson and was known for the discovery of oxygen. Also he was the founder of the Unitarianism in the United States. We got a tour with the director of the site, Andrea, who is very knowledgable, not only about Dr. Priestly, but also about women's history. She has done a great job learning about the family and the daily workings of life in the house, and gives an interesting tour.

In Mifflinburg, we had an unsuccessful trip to the Buggy Museum, which only has hours on days inconvenient to us (Thursday through Sunday). We stopped by Mary Koons Quilts (see more on that in the knitting blog) and D&L Soft Pretzels (a must on 45).

Heading south on 104, we stopped at Penns Creek Pottery. Bill Lynch and his wife, and other artisans, make and sell beautiful pottery and other craft work in this carefully converted historic barn. All of their work is beautiful and creative, with colorful and unique glazes. If you like pottery, you must go there. They are talented and friendly people. The barn is located just over Penns Creek, north of the village of Penns Creek on 104, and it is open Tuesday through Saturday.

We stopped quickly at two wineries, Shade Mountain on 104, and Hunters Valley on 11 & 15, and got a few more bottles of wine, including a novelty mint wine from Shade Mountain called Six Dwarves. As you can imagine, there is nothing really special about these wines, but they aren’t bad, either.

We had lunch at a cool hamburger place called Cruisers Café. The owners converted an old Texaco station into a 50’s style burger place, replete with Coke memorabilia and cheerful waitresses. We had bison burgers and fries, which were both tasty. It was a really neat place.

We arrived home in the evening, exhausted but satisfied with our Pennsylvania road trip vacation.

Thursday, June 30, 2005

Going to Peru

I will be headed to Peru for work on the 10th of July. Our office there needs me to help with a proposal, which is due on the 21st of July.

I'm very excited about going to Peru, but not excited to stay in another hotel and never really see anything interesting of the country. I hope that the country rep or someone there can plan a site visit to a project while I'm there, so that I'll actually get to see what we are doing there.

I'm hoping that while I'm there I'll be able to take advantage of the long history of fiber arts in Peru and purchase some handspun alpaca! I would like to get enough yarn to make Joe, myself, and maybe some other lucky soul, a sweater, and a bit more to swap.

I think that I prefer to travel for fun. If I look into my secret mind, I will probably find that I got into this line of work for the adventurous travel opportunities more than for the philanthropic element.

I will post from Peru.

The Professor and I are going on a road trip for vacation to see his clan in NW PA for the fourth. We will be camping and running around, so I'll blog that, too.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Trip to LA

The Professor and I had a great time visiting our friends in LA. Their little daughter is so cute! She is a really cool baby. Here is a photo of the Professor and I at Tokyo Delve's, a weird sushi place:

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

In Between Times

I'm writing on the recommendation of the Professor, my lovely fiancé, who, when I told him that I was bored at work, suggested I write about being bored in one of my blogs. So here you go. I did ask him who would really want to read about my being bored, and he didn't think that it mattered. So, if this is irritating to you, you really have him to blame.

I just started a new blog that I'm pretty excited about. It is all about my knitting, crochet, and other craft projects. I think that if you told me ten years ago that I'd be doing a blog on knitting, I would have told you you were nuts. But, it really is therapeutic and addictive (yes, something can be both!); and it is rewarding to give gifts to people that you make with your own hands.

So, we just finished a huge global proposal here at work, and now we're in this weird limbo state. Most of us have little to do except deal with that way-back-burner stuff that we avoid religiously when we are doing more interesting things. I took care of that stuff, and now have absolutely nothing to do. Really. So, why am I still here you ask? Because the boss of the boss told me that he had something for me to do 1 hour ago. I have something that I would rather be doing -- knitting. Or crocheting. Or the Washington Post Crossword.

In fact, I will do the crossword now. Yesterday, I did the whole thing with no hints. I'm getting better. I can't wait until I actually achieve that elusive goal of being able to go for a whole week with no hints. I am particularly fond of the crosswords that have a theme. I love figuring out the theme. It makes me feel smart. Today's is pretty easy, but I needed two hints. Oh well. Still no word from the boss of the boss as to what the mystery task is.

Maybe I'll read Slate now...

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Colombo, Sri Lanka

One of the saddest sights (certainly not the saddest) around Batticaloa is the plethora of thinning, wounded, sad-looking dogs and cats. Some of these animals, especially the dogs, patiently, futilely mope around the ruined foundations of destroyed houses, sniffing at the half-buried saris and shoes. Others wait outside restaurants and snack shops for discarded scraps of food. Some of these were clearly well-loved pets, and others little more than strays, but their presence around the town emphasizes the sadness and death. There was a little cat at the hotel I was staying in. She was an adorable calico, starved and begging. She looked like a little fallen princess, bright collar and all, once loved and comfortable, now begging for her dinner. There was also a rather unlikely pair that wandered the streets together, a cute tan dog with a limp and a marmalade cat. They went everywhere together, and sometimes you would even find them sleeping all curled up with one another. It made me really sad.

Sadness is really under the surface everywhere in this country right now. I know that I keep saying that it isn’t as bad as it seemed, but that’s not to say that this still isn’t a horrible, historic tragedy from which it will take a long time to recover. I left Batticaloa yesterday morning, and along the road to Colombo, white and black mourning flags flew quietly. White flags are a symbol of mourning for Buddhists, and black flags for Christians. Even far from the coasts, the flags were stuck in rice paddies, affixed to street lamp poles, hanging from windows. In such a small country, everyone was touched with grief from this disaster.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Batticaloa, Sri Lanka

We went to yet another coordination meeting this morning, this one for non-food item household kits at the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) office. This one was better than the last one, because people were talking about how they are already doing things, and what they were going to do this week. Most organizations had done assessments to find out what items were needed, and apparently the local government is gathering the names and information on all the beneficiaries. That is a bit of a different set up than what we had in the Congo. In the Congo, you would never have been able to rely on the local leadership to give you an accurate list of beneficiaries, because there are all kinds of personal relationships that come into play. They would leave off the list their political adversaries and people they didn’t like, and make up fake people so that people they do like could get multiple kits. Here, the government for the most part is working well with the relief effort, which is great.

One of the best things about working here is that it is safe, so you can move around freely. I found a great place for taking walks that starts right in front of the hotel. It takes you up by the estuary, next to a pretty neighborhood (that wasn’t affected), across a causeway, down one of the main roads of town, and then back across the bridge to the hotel. There are fishermen out in the estuary in the traditional style of boat that is like a canoe with a rectangular piece of wood on one side (not sure why, but I think it has something to do with hanging the nets). They look so peaceful out there. Supposedly, singing fish live in the estuary, and they are loudest from April to September. They say that the fishermen know they are there because when it is quiet, you can hear the humming. I haven’t heard the humming, since it isn’t very quiet along the road, but I like to believe that they are in there singing. In the air along the road, there is the pleasant salty-windy smell of the sea. It is nice, even when there is traffic.

So, as I said, it is safe here. Crime is a rare occurrence. That’s why we were all surprised when a freelance photojournalist told us that all her gear, except the cameras she had with her at the time, was stolen from her hotel room, most likely by someone who works there. She lost her laptop, external hard drive, and camera chargers, as well as all the photos she had taken here and in Indonesia for two assignments. None of it was insured, and the police were no help at all. It is easy to say, “well, the person who stole it is probably poor and desperate, and while this is a set back for her, it isn’t the end of her life.” However, anyone who has a job at a hotel, especially here and now, is not hurting, and meanwhile they may have ruined her reputation with the two magazines, because they aren’t going to get the best quality photos from her. We were all shocked. Thankfully, it wasn’t at the hotel I’m staying at, but you never know I guess.

One of the random responsibilities that has just been assigned to me is “staff care”. Not sure yet how serious this is, but I think that I’d like to do that kind of thing. Today I went out and bought stuff for the house, and I will be spending the rest of the week shopping! Not so bad, really, but admittedly I’m a bit annoyed. I didn’t get a master’s degree to go shopping.

Batticaloa, Sri Lanka

Three days have gone by, and, needless to say, much has changed. The Jesuits and I have finally finished their proposal for their project that we are funding, which was hard won. They do exciting work, and are very good at it, but it was hard to wring this proposal out of them because they are very fluid, and kept changing their ideas. Finally we banged it out, but not after a short moment of tension, when it looked like they were about to start some activities that would have short-circuited the coordination that was going on in the shelter group.

I’ll be headed back to Colombo this weekend, which I’m glad about. I’m very homesick, and could use more frequent access to the Internet. Don’t get me wrong, Batticaloa is a nice town and the people are great. It is just that I’m tired of the work, and am ready to go home. I’m not really needed here that badly (as one can tell by my recent shopping assignment). Colombo isn’t bad, so I’ll enjoy some time there, maybe take a day trip to Kandy to see the Temple of the Tooth, and then I’m out of here on the 8th of February, or earlier if I can make that happen. The boss told me that I’d be doing some writing and orienting two new staff members (frankly, I’m not sure why the need any more staff here), but I can’t imagine that taking up too much of my time, certainly not two whole weeks. Besides, he is likely to change his mind yet again.

The little daughters of my fiancé’s boss gave me three of their dolls to give to children here. It was so sweet that they were so concerned about other kids so far away. Those dolls were with me in my backpack for days. I had the hardest time figuring out what to do with them. If I went over to the camp across the street and picked three children out at random, I would have been the pied piper, with kids following me forever asking for dolls. I didn’t find an opportunity to give them to kids who were on their own anywhere, since that is rare here. Nevertheless, I really wanted to give the dolls away, to help the girls make the connection they wanted to make. Yesterday, I gave them to the Jesuit in charge of the relief programs here, so he could take them to the orphanage and give them to the kids there. Then the dolls were in his bag. We went together to a coordination meeting for the education sector, and the whole time I was hard pressed not to laugh, since all three of the dolls had their heads poking out of his bag next to the table, as if they, too, were attending the meeting.

I just finished some shopping. I know I complained about being assigned so low a task, but I have to admit that I enjoyed it. I love talking to the shopkeepers, and seeing all the interesting things they have. Here, the relationship between the storeowner and the client is very friendly, even when they are trying to make you pay more than the normal price! Instead of being able to browse through everything, you just tell them what you want, and the employees run around showing you everything that they have that might suit you. In some places, you can even sit down and have tea while this happens! I wish that I could shop, or be shopped for, like this in the US.

In addition to the things I got for the Caritas house here, such as towels and sheets and pillows, I also bought some beautiful ribbon and a sarong. The 1.5” wide silk sari border ribbon with embroidery all along it that I bought cost me only $2.00 for 10 meters. A roll of ½” satin ribbon was only 50 cents! Traditional Sri Lankan men, especially outside of Colombo and the cities, wear sarongs. These are pieces of fabric sewn into a tube and hemmed that they gather and tuck around their waists. A lot of men in Batticaloa wear them. I guess it must be more comfortable for them, and cooler. Most are in relatively understated patterns, like simple solids, stripes, and plaids in blue, white, dark green, and black. Some of the fancier ones have border ribbon sewn onto the bottom. I bought a plain green one in a nice fabric for my fiancé – I figured he could wear it around the house, since a man in a skirt would look a bit funny in the States.

The stores sell all kinds of things. The fabric store, for example, sells not only fabric, but also some clothing, pillows, sheets, towels, beading, ribbon, etc. The place where I got the knives and silverware sells yarn, ribbon, toys, Hindu idols, Buddha statuettes, knickknacks galore, pots and pans, and big brass stands that you put candles and flowers on for the prayer room in your house. It can be a little confusing at first, but when you realize that you don’t have to look through it all to find what you want because someone else will do that for you, it becomes a surprisingly pleasant experience. Unlike most shopping experiences, the price is also a pleasure, because things are so cheap here.

I’m wondering if any of you who read this are disappointed because I’m not talking more about the disaster and the people. I’m sorry that I can’t give you more about that, but it just isn’t what I’m seeing. I think that is one of the parts of humanitarian work that many people don’t understand. As outsiders, we don’t really get all the way out to the beneficiaries that often. Usually, the local organizations we support do that end of the work. Sometimes we get to go to see building sites for the shelter, oversee emergency distributions, or talk to the local leaders, but those visits are shallow and short. This is especially true in a country like Sri Lanka, which has a lot of local capacity to carry out projects. Plus, my time here is short and focused on administrative issues. Those who are here longer get a better picture of things, and also have more time to work in the beneficiary communities. So, I apologize if all this isn’t terribly interesting, but it is what it is.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Batticaloa, Sri Lanka

I finally arrived in Colombo too early Monday morning after a horrid series of flights from Baltimore. In addition to the innumerable delays, I had a long layover in Bangkok. I had expected this layover to be a chance to get a shower and some rest, and maybe do some shopping, but that was not to be. There were no day rooms to be had, so I ended up in a rather dim guesthouse taking a shower in a shared bathroom and trying to keep myself awake all day by eating, doing email, and getting a rather nice Thai massage. I had forgotten how bad Bangkok smells, or maybe it had just gotten worse since the last time I was there.

So, exhausted and jet lagged and dirty, I dropped into Colombo, Sri Lanka at 1 something in the morning on Monday, and got to the hotel and a bed at about 3:30am. Some of the staff, including myself, were put up at the Taj Samudra hotel, which is nice and, if one were there on vacation, very well located. I spent most of Monday in our makeshift office in the library of our local partner, Caritas Sri Lanka/SEDEC.

One of the odd things about the non-profit industry is that it is competitive, with agencies competing not only for the money of private donors, but also for the recognition from public donors. To this end, representation in the media is rather important, and CRS doesn’t do too much of it. The CRS philosophy in the field is that the partners should get the credit for the work, since they do most of it, and we only give them the resources and the support to do it. However, CRS also should bet some of the credit, and to that end, headquarters sent me over with a load of navy-blue T-shirts with CRS in white on front and back. When I got them to the office, no one really wanted to wear them, and we decided that we would don them dutifully for the CBS news guys who were going to film us bustling about the “office” that day, but not in the field. That way, CRS would get some airtime, but when it really counted, the partner would be front and center. I’m not sure which side of the fence I stand on regarding this issue. CRS does do a lot of the work to make a project happen, and I see no reason that we shouldn’t get credit for that. More than one agency can share the applause at a job well done, no? So why can’t the partner and CRS both get the credit? But then on the other hand, people may assume that CRS really did all the work and just let the partner do some symbolic parts, when really there was hard work on both sides. CRS can pay for publicity, but local partners need to get theirs, well deserved, as cheaply as possible without being overshadowed by a bigger sister.

Anyway, Colombo seems to be a nice enough and livable city. There are many historic sites, and it is open and on the sea and has some pretty spots, despite the oversized confetti of colorful signs posted everywhere and anywhere. The shopping appears to be great here – you can get authentic brand name clothing for very cheap in stores in Colombo because the clothes are made in factories on the island. Not to mention that the national arts and crafts are interesting and well developed.

I didn’t get to stay in Colombo long, though. CRS originally sent me out here to write proposals to get more money from the US government for our programs. However, it turns out that the effort here is flush with cash, and is having a hard time programming what it already has. One of my coworkers here said it well, “none of the important things are expensive”. Psychosocial trauma counseling doesn’t cost a lot to implement. Nor do many of the other things that CRS is doing here and is good at. So, I was “repurposed”, and sent to the field with a mandate to help set up the office in Kalamunai in Ampara district.

Batticaloa, Sri Lanka
The drive across the country was an absolute pleasure. Sri Lanka is beautiful and interesting, with some really nice historic places and good hotels. I highly recommend a trip here – it would not only help with the national recovery from the disaster, but would also be fun and interesting. We spend the night in Habarana, in huge hotel called the Village. It was great, but empty. We were some of the five or so people there, and the bored staff hovered around us, waiting on us hand and foot. The rooms were clean and comfortable, and the place is really well kept.

After arriving at Batticaloa, I was again redeployed, this time to stay in the town and work with one of the partners, Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS), which was going to implement some trauma counseling and other types of activities with CRS funds. Batticaloa is a town of some size, with stores and churches and mosques and temples all over the place. I like it. Sri Lankans are very friendly people, even the police and the military, and so it is easy to get along with everyone.

On Thursday, Cardinal McCarrick from Washington, DC and Ken Hackett, the president of CRS visited Batti. We drove out en masse, a junket of priests and nuns and aid workers, to one of the areas that was hit by the wave. It was stunningly awful. Whole blocks of what were once middle-class (for Sri Lanka) homes were decimated. Chunks of painted brick, broken tiles, and piles of debris wound up with saris and other clothing are everywhere. There are still some houses standing or half-standing, and you can see that the neighborhood, called Dutch Bar, was once almost prosperous. We drove past St. Ignatius School – or at least where the school once was. It is now a blank sand flat.

While the dignitaries were show the barely-damaged church by the slightly over-zealous parish priest, I wandered off to look at the real damage. I have to admit that I was struck at first by the thought that these people weren’t really poor, so they weren’t that badly off, but then I felt guilty for feeling that way, because it doesn’t really matter who you are, if you lose your house and family, you are poor and alone and sad. Looking at a half-destroyed house, the exposed interior walls bright yellow and still decorated with a small painting of a Hindu god, I saw a shoe in the debris. Shoes show up in photos of all disasters, probably because they are so evocative and so symbolic; in a way, this makes the shoe image a bit trite. However, at that moment, I was overwhelmed with an involuntary imagining of a family in the yellow room doing what families do and suddenly the water hits the house and screams in the windows and rushes down on them. They shout and drop everything and run to the door but even the traitorous house comes crashing down on them as the malicious furniture blocks their escape. It was too much, and I lost it. I cried and cried, a lame, useless, too-little-too-late crying.

Yes, the situation here is terrible. Worse than anything I’ve ever seen. Yet it is true that there is too much money, too many aid agencies, and too little work. What needs to be done is construction and reconstruction, but Tower-of-Babel meetings of logo-wearing foreigners from all over the world discuss with local bureaucrats the fate of the people currently languishing in the “welfare” camps. These stupid meetings go on and on, discussing semantics, specifics, methodologies, and sensitivities. Meanwhile, those who lost their homes live in tents or on the floors of schools; they live with relatives in crowded houses and wait for someone to tell them where to go. Some people want to go back to their old places, but most don’t want to be anywhere they can even hear the sea. Some go down each day to clean their home sites, spending their whole day there but returning to the camps at night, even if their homes are standing. I don’t think anyone but the journalists has asked them what they want – we are all talking about theories: keeping neighbors together, 150 square meters for a family of five, the finer points of tin roofs. How noble and how completely useless. I know that these things take time, but we really should be coordinating with the actual survivors. It only makes sense.

Perhaps I am a bit too jaded. It does take a long time to make sure that everyone is on the same page and that agencies aren’t duplicating effort and that everyone is being served by someone. It is necessary to get the buy in from local bureaucrats. But more than anything else, we need to consider the people we are doing this for, and what their needs and hopes are.

JRS, the partner I’m working with, is a pretty good organization that works with refugees in many countries around the world, particularly in education. They have been working here with people displaced by the civil war between the government and the Tamil Tigers in the north and east of the country. With this emergency, JRS is working with their previous beneficiaries in the displaced camps as well as the people who have taken refuge from the tsunami in the schools and churches of the Jesuits. The priest in charge in Batticaloa for JRS is the regional director of the agency from Dehli, Fr. Amal. Fr. Amal is definitely a dedicated, humble, energetic visionary, but the man cannot think rationally or practically to save his soul. He has us so confused we literally have no idea what he wants to do at any given moment. Working with him to get a formal agreement on what we are going to pay for so his organization can do their activities is maddening.