Thursday, December 30, 2010

The little things

Previously I promised you all a little something uplifting. I know a lot of what I wrote about while in Thailand was as difficult to read as it was to experience, but while I explored the evil that resides in places we may not expect, the good was there too. I was supported and encouraged by those closest to me and also by those I least expected. Happy New Year. And remember...

"The dreams we appear in are not only our own." - Gil Scot-Heron

It had been a long week. Several days in a Laos-Thai border market from morning until past sunset. This are not your friendly tourist market, but one where you sit and watch, observing and remembering, but unable to react to the things you see. Members of the military delivering children across the border to work. People offering you permission and warnings about your presence in the same breath. Walking down sweltering streets quietly assessing the children you see. I got so I could guess the age and nationality of a child with very good accuracy, whether he or she was selling fresh fish or sex.

So on our day outside of the market, we planned half a day in karaoke bars on the other side of the Mun river to see what we could find. The first had a reputation for having the youngest and most beautiful Lao girls. I sat and observed as three interviewers chatted with girls, reading stories through voice tone and hand gestures. Then we crossed the street to another karaoke bar, and the mamasan invited us to sit down for a chat. After we explained our goals, and that we were hopeful our research would lead to increased access to support and resources for young people there, including karaoke workers, she was receptive. She suggest that future programming include lessons in Thai manners and customs so her ladies could better serve customers. I threw up a little in my mouth. She then brought out 3 employees well over 18 to be interviewed, denying any who were underage. As it was the end of the day (and I could barely contain my feelings toward the mamasan) I decided to walk back to our guesthouse since I couldn't help with interviews.

As I approached the bridge to cross the river, the father of the owner of my guesthouse approached, jogging. He and I had the quasi-friendship of people who do not speak the same language. Since we both like running, we would greet each other, make running motions and smile occasionally. So he saw me walking, said something in Thai and made running motions. I motioned to my shoes, saying I couldn't run but I was walking home (all in English). He smiled and ran off. I continued crossing the bridge, contemplating the new construction and the karaoke bars as they turned on their twinkling Christmas lights for the evening.

Then I saw the father of the guesthouse owner again, this time on a bicycle. He approached me and motioned that I should ride it, watching as I mounted and rode off. He had run back to the guesthouse, pulled out a bicycle and brought it back to me, perhaps thinking that I had meant my feet hurt when I gestured to my shoes earlier. Although I was less than half a mile away, I smiled, thanked him. Even though I ripped one of my two pairs of pants on the chain and managed to get grease on them too, it made my week. Someone did something, unmotivated by personal gain, to help me and make my day easier. It really is the little things.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Where is the line between harm reduction and facilitation of commercial sexual exploitation?

I had this cheery post ready for you. It was funny, witty even, if I may say so myself. No dice though. In addition to (hopefully) entertaining you, this blog lets me empty my brain of things that echo in my mind, and if I don't give them a way out they stay there. I'll try to make the next one happy.

So I'm sitting in my hotel room in Bangkok right now (my last night in Thailand) doing data entry. Yes my life is thrilling. Be jealous. One of the sub-groups of children we interviewed are karaoke workers, as you've already heard. To be specific, these are girls (and one or two lady-boys (I swear that's the PC term here)) who work in karaoke bars, yes there is singing, yes there is drinking, but you have to pay the girls to talk to you. You pay them a lot more to leave with you. We pretty much only talk to girls who are underage, or sometimes if they started working while underage. So I'm sitting here on what should be a fabulous and celebratory last night of research and getting to go home, reading about 15, 16, and 17 years olds who have sex with old men for money. I don't care how you feel about prostitution or sex work or whatever you want to call it. Somewhere there is a line. Having sex with children isn't ok. Why? Because they're just that, children. They are not equipped with the knowledge and skills to make good decisions, they cannot fathom the repercussions of their actions (let's start with the social stigma and move on to HIV). The power dynamic involved is inconceivable, these children cannot broach it, especially if their customers happen to be law enforcement (cough cough different post once I'm not in Thailand). If you want to pay for sex, you settle that with your god and your own moral code, and whatever country you're in will force you to abide by theirs. But you don't get to have sex with kids.

But you can. I almost regret that I've posted where I've been because someone is going to see this and go find these karaoke bars. Not that they're a secret. So let's say you're a bit of a do-gooder. You know this is happening, there are 10, 15, 20 karaoke bars, all with 5 - 10 girls, at least half of whom are under 18 (I'm estimating, humor me). What do you do? Many members of the public health community argue for harm reduction strategies when approaching sex work. This means you reduce the possible danger to participants: sex ed, easy access to condoms, HIV and STI testing, recourse if they are abused during the course of a transaction. A classic example of harm reduction is needle exchanges so injection drug uses don't exchange diseases. This appalls some people, they say "prostitution is immoral! it abuses women! it wrecks families! it spreads disease!" Okay. I hear you. But it's just not going anywhere, you won't end it. Or rather it is, you get rid of it in place x, places y and z are ready and waiting to set up complementary operations.

But what about harm reduction strategies, like promoting safer sex and HIV testing, when the "sex workers" are actually defined as victims? The people making money from their activities are participating in the commercial sexual exploitation of children. Are you condoning it by offering them safe options for what they're doing (whether or not they believe they are choose to do it)? Oh you'd "rescue" them would you? How kind. What if I told you they didn't want to leave? What if I told you they feel proud of the money they send home. What if I told you that some of their parents not only know what they're doing, but encourage it because it's the only way they'll ever own land or a house or send one of their other children beyond the 3rd grade. What then?

Do you protect them to the extent you can? Give them "better options" with vocational training in sewing and beautician school, even though they make as much in 1-2 nights as most young people do in a month? Or do you see it as a pure violation of rights which you cannot support, even tacitly? I don't have an answer. Do you?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Judge not lest ye be judged

(I've been trying to think of a better title for this post, aware of the irony/inappropriateness of using judeo/christian proverbs and/or bible verses to describe happenings in a Buddhist country. But so it goes.)

I wish I could show you a map of where I am. So the main road of the town are a big T, on a peninsula. The bottom of the T is where the Khong and Mun rivers collide. The right side of the T takes you north-ish, through markets and out of town. The left side of the T takes you past restaurants, the fresh market, karaoke bars, over the Mun bridge, more karaoke bars and on to Phiboon Mansahan and Chong Mek (South-ish). Much of the commerce of the town takes place somewhere on this T, before the the Mun bridge.

I've been asking myself why the people here, who have been kind to me, are generally kind to each other, and the majority of whom are practicing Buddhists, allow so many (15 or so) karaoke bars to exist so close to their homes. (Also, when I say karaoke bars, these are brothels, not your neighborhood family karaoke spots.) So why don't the people of this town mind that there are karaoke bars, barely on the edge of their town? They see the girls from the bars in town buying food or at the beauty salon. Although the people in town and girls from karaoke rarely speak, the girls are obviously under 18. Why doesn't it bother anyone!?

But then I thought to myself, well what about me? I walk through Chinatown in San Francisco, past massage parlors, and do nothing. I study trafficking, I work in anti-trafficking sometimes. I know what happens in some of those bars or massage parlors. I know it happens in places all over my community. But I do nothing. On one hand it's not as close as it is here, on the other hand... I have no excuse. But what can I do? Maybe people here wonder the same thing... I asked someone about this and they described it as not wanting to make trouble. This is the way things are, there are karaoke bars, young Lao girls work in them, disrupting the balance would be a bad thing.

There is a sign at a local school that says "Do evil. Receive evil. Do good. Receive good." But what about when we do nothing? Where does that fall along the line of morals and ethics?

Monday, December 6, 2010

18 Candles

Sitting in a restaurant as she blew out the candles, I realized I was witnessing a relatively momentous occasion. She turned 18 today. Where I'm from 18 means voting, lottery tickets, cigarettes, the military, and a few other relatively inconsequential milestones. But here I was, witnessing the moment where (according to the international community), this girl had become a woman who was now responsible for her actions. She had gone from a child exploited for commercial sex to a sex worker in one day.

The buying and selling of sex is illegal in Thailand, but it is far from hidden. Given, I am in a region of the country that is known for its sex workers (often young girls from Lao PDR) and I've been told the number of karaoke bars in the small towns in the region is particularly high. I'm not yet sure of the proportion of sex workers here who are underage vs. those who are over 18, it may be around 50/50. 

But as this girl reached 18 and was now liable not only for for her actions, but judged capable of making her own decisions, it occurred to me that her range of choices were relatively few. People who work in karaoke here are very isolated, with few friends or even acquaintances outside of their job, their broker, or mamasan. This means that once you start working in karaoke, it would be hard to switch jobs while living in the same place, partially because of your reputation, and partly because your income would change so dramatically.

So what were this girl's choices really? She has been working in karaoke here for years. It is unlikely she completed school beyond elementary. She makes about 30 times more money than the girls her age who were waitresses at this restaurant. If the trends follow, she is probably here earning money to help her family in Lao, and if you ask her what she wants or where she wants to go, she'll probably say she wants money so she can leave and go home to her family.

And so I watched, sang, clapped and took pictures. She looked happy. I felt sad for her, not out of pity or judgement about how she earns money, but because she had missed the last years of her childhood, pretending to be an adult. Now she was an adult, and it was too late to go back.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Khong Chiam 7/11

7/11 has arrived in Khong Chiam!

People here have said that 7/11 is the mark of civilization, so Khong Chiam has officially arrived. Thailand is full of 7/11. It's like Dunkin Donuts in Boston. Inescapable. Now I'm generally a "buy local" "support local business" kind of a gal.  I am genuinely concerned that the small local shops nearby are going to suffer a hit and a couple might just go under. So here's a list of reasons why 7/11 is awesome, followed by reasons other small businesses will survive:

7/11 is awesome in Khong Chiam because...
1. It sells books, no one else here does. Okay they're not in English, but other people can buy them.
2. Fat free dairy. Anyone who knows me knows how I feel about this.
3. Air conditioning. Ah the value of food stored in air conditioning. You get crunchy nuts, soft bread,  and most importantly...
4. Chocolate! Previously there was no chocolate here. But with air conditioning they can store it so they can sell it. I approve.
5. Prepared food. This is valuable only because my Thai is terrible and greatly limits my eating choices when I'm by myself since menus here are not in English. Handy occasionally, but not such a bit deal.

Reasons local stores will survive...
1. They let locals have tabs. You can buy your groceries and pay when you get paid at the end of the month. This is HUGE.
2. More stuff. Most stores carry a wider range of products than 7/11, so if you need many things you're likely to do all your shopping somewhere else.
3. The number of people (kids included) who have told me they "don't like western food" bodes well for the noodles carts and banana roti man, as the sandwiches may not appeal.
4. This is a small town and everyone knows who owns which store. Plus prices at 7/11 and local places are within 1 baht (4 cents) of each other, so I think locals will actively support their friends.

So come to Khong Chiam! We have 7/11! But we also have tons of local places that are way more awesome, but don't have chocolate.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Reconciling Buddhism and Trafficking

Let me start by saying I am an expert on neither buddhism nor trafficking, this is an entirely superficial perspective. (It saddens me a bit to say) I have spent significantly more time reading about, talking about, researching, and pondering trafficking than I have Buddhism. Most of my knowledge comes from people I know who have dabbled in Buddhism, whether with conviction or curiosity, and from the answers to all the questions I ask of my Thai co-workers here.

So how can these two concepts appear so juxtaposed, yet co-exist? Let's start with definitions, as a wise person once told me, at the core of all arguments and disagreements is a difference of opinion about the definition of something.

What is trafficking? According to the definition used by the international community "Trafficking in Person is defined as the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs." (Protocol to Prevent and Suppress the Trafficking in Persons, UNODC).

OK that was long. I know. So the short version is "Moving someone using threats, force, or fraud, with the end goal of exploiting them." The exception here is that if the person is under 18 you don't need to use threats, force or fraud, because of the power imbalance, if you move a child and it results in exploitation, you are guilty of trafficking. Yes there are nuances that we can debate in future blogs or in comments, but remember, we're being a bit superficial on purpose.

So then, if we've simplified trafficking into a sentence or two, where does Buddhism stand? (forgive me, Wikipedia was succinct) "Buddhism is a religion and philosophy encompassing a variety of traditions, beliefs, and practices, largely based on teachings attributed to Siddharta Gautama, commonly known as the Buddha. He is recognized by Buddhists as an awakened or enlighted teacher who shared his insights to help sentient beings end suffering, achieve nirvana, and escape what is seen as a cycle of suffering and rebirth." 

So how is it that these two, apparently disparate, practices can co-exist so closely. Why is it that SouthEast Asia and the Mekong region have some of the highest recorded instances of human trafficking in the world, and this exists, in Thailand at least, in a place where Buddhism is not only the dominant religion, but an ingrained part of the culture. How can something that causes so much pain exist in a place steeped in a religion that aims to end suffering? But, I think this is where it's important to remind myself of two things: people who are religious are not necessarily more ethical or moral than those who are not, and the existence of criminality and wrongdoing in conjunction with the presence of piety and good intentions is not unusual. The existence of a of moral code, even one that is wide reaching and part of the national culture, doesn't necessarily translate to adherence.

Yesterday I took part in a beautiful religious and cultural celebration here, where you make little boats from banana leaves, put incense and candles in them, and float them down the river under the full moon. Before you let your boat go, you pray. Traditionally, you pray about letting go of anger and spite and disappointment, and you ask for success and luck in the coming year.

Yesterday I heard the story of a girl who worked on a mushroom farm nearby and for almost a year was assaulted by her boss daily as he took her from where she stayed to where she worked. Someone finally helped her escape and took her to the police. The police shrugged off the accusations because she was Lao.

In the simplest terms, good and bad exist everywhere, whether or not we choose to see them. One does not preclude the existence of the other, whether things seem idyllic or hope seems lost.

Perhaps we should not try to reconcile Buddhism and human trafficking, for fear of diluting the depth of understanding necessary to grasp either one. But rather, remember that they coexist, in the same culture, the same place, and sometimes even the same people.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Thailand Incognito

There are some places I imagine I could blend in, pretty much anywhere English speaking, maybe Argentina or Chile, maybe parts of Europe if I didn’t wear sneakers. Northeast Thailand is definitely not one of them. Not only do I not blend, I stand out. But unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been, no one really seems all that interested. A big part of that is probably how many Westerns come to Thailand, whether living here or just passing through. On the other hand I’m in northeastern Thailand (Khong Chiam outside of Ubon Ratchathani if you’re in the mood for googling). This is not on your guide book’s “Top 10 things to do in Thailand” list. There are no beaches. There is no one trying to sell you anything or take you on a tour. But still, people seem to notice me, and beyond an extra glance over their shoulder as they walk away, they don’t seem to mind about me, one way or another. It’s actually really nice. It makes being more than a head taller than everyone in this little town on the border of Laos a little easier.
I would say that would be my tagline for Thailand so far, it’s an easy place to be. People are kind and helpful, the food is delicious, fresh and cheap, Although I am in a very rural part of the country the roads are paved and the lights are consistently on, and the little shops have all the necessities you could need living here (even espresso!). It’s also a beautiful place to be, with the Khong (Mekong) River on one side of our little peninsula and the Mun (Moon) River on the other, it’s stunning in every direction.
In other places I have found myself constantly apologizing for not speaking the local language, and having people dismiss me solely because of it. Here everyone is delighted when I nod and point, and at my butchering of Thank You in Thai. I’m working on it, and they’re more than happy to put the price of anything on their calculator to show me. People here don’t love me or hate me, they seem to simply be untroubled by my presence. Maybe they’re just being polite, but the Canadian in me appreciates some perfunctory politeness. Maybe I just don’t know what they’re saying about me because I don’t speak Thai, but I am more than content to live in a little ignorant bliss for the time being.
So just a little update for everyone who reads this occasionally to keep track of me, rather than for my keen insight (ha): I’m in Thailand, on the border of Laos. I was in Bangkok for a few days before coming here, and will be staying here until about December 15, when I will return to Bangkok. I’ll leave for home on December 18th.  I’m here working, so it’s unlikely I’ll be able to see anywhere outside of this rural corner of Thailand, but it looks like I’ll be putting it on my list of places to visit again. I’m 12 hours ahead of EST and 15 hours ahead of PST if you feel like calling, just email me for my Thai cell number or catch me online.
More to come!

Update #2
So it's been 5 weeks and I take it all back. Okay not all of it but most of it. Thailand seeming easy and like no one bothered with me... well that was just in comparison to Angola. Angola is difficult. Thailand is... well it isn't easy. There's just more effort to present a pleasant front I think. Like for instance, when teaching a data collection method to researchers, my first thought of something they could rank (1-5 best to worst, you get the idea) was "Biggest Problems in Luanda" since people already talked about it alllll the time. There was trash and electricity problems, cost of living, traffic and on and on. But here, we went with "Things you like best about Khong Chiam" because everyone's preference is to say positive things, even though there are negative things to say, they just often don't get said. Very interesting and I'm learning, slowly but surely.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Leaving Luanda

Go ahead and hum Leaving Luanda to the tune of Leaving Las Vegas (I'm leave luuuuanda, lights so bright, I'm leaving Luuuuuanda, I'm leaving for good). Here's a little description of what happened on my way home. I wrote this right after everything happened, perhaps why my exasperation comes through a bit strong.  It lead to several exasperated phone calls, but most importantly they let me leave and I'm home again.  Thanks a million to everyone for the support as always, I couldn't do it without you.

The Luanda Airport as a Vignette of Angola

  •         The car arrives to bring me to the airport. Late. Despite the fact that I confirmed thrice the time it should arrive.
  •     We hit traffic. Various traffic laws are broken avoiding said traffic.
  •     Police, rather than being at intersections where gridlock occurs,  stand in the middle of the highway, which has no lane lines painted, aggressively gesturing and yelling at motorist to CONTINUE STRAIGHT! MOVE!
  •     First security check, my printed reservation and passport are taken. 2 people puzzle over the passport. The man has about 10 rosters of passengers in front of him. He is searching for my name by hand. He finds it. Puts a little star next to my name and sends me on my way.
  •      I check in. My bag is overweight by 5 kilos (books and paperwork!). I ask how much it will cost. $150 USD. I reply that I will remove the 5 kilos as I have another bag I can check. Ah, I can fix the problem. Nevermind then. Overweight is ok.
  •       I pass through customs and am gestured into a small room. I’m asked if I speak Portuguese. I say I understand but speak Spanish. Head shaking. I’m asked if I have money. Well yes. I do. I’m asked if I have Kwanzas (national currency), if I have dollars. To put all of it on the table. (My fear of what will happen if I lie and am searched is greater than my fear of losing the money.) I pull out over a thousand US dollars and more Kwanzas. Do I know that I’m not allowed to take Kwanzas out the of country? I do, I planned to spend them in the airport. My kwanzas are seized (over $125 USD), thankfully my USD is returned. I am informed that if I will be returning to Angola within one week I can get them when I return. I reply that I will not return. Apparently I have offended them, I’m asked why I won’t return. I explain. I ask for a receipt for the money they will take from me. They act as though they don’t understand, although I’m sure I have the vocabulary right after collecting receipts for 5 weeks. So some people will give up $125 with no written record? Either everyone else knows better or I’m missing an opportunity to give a gaseosa (literally – soda, actually – bribe) and keep my money. Money is taken. Receipt is received.
  •      I go upstairs to a bare but clean room with two small walk up counters with a variety of fried foods and alcohol. I look. I go to the open buffet. A hot option (pasta, chicken etc), plus a cold option (salad or bread) plus dessert plus soup is $50 USD. But if I just want a hot option it’s $35.
  •     I return to the counter and ask how I may pay for my food. I’m informed that either Kwanzas or dollars will do. When I reply that I’d pay in Kwanzas but someone just took all mine she smiles and says well I suppose you’ll pay in dollars then.
  •      I order. It’s microwaved. I pay too much. It’s not bad for here. At home I’d pick frozen Ellio’s pizza over what I’m eating. But the olive has no pit, that’s a plus.
  •      I am in a room with apparently 4 internet signals, none of which can I access.
  •     Tables around me slowly fill up, the room is full of men from Portugal, men from Brazil. And then there are American men, they sound like they’re from Texas. None of them is under 250 pounds.  I see two women and one table of non Anglo/Caucasian/White men.
  •       I’ve got another 2.5 hours until my flight. I was told to arrive as early as possible because “you can never be too early to the airport in Angola, anything can happen”.

 Luanda downtown from the fortaleza, a mix of construction, colonial architecture and unfinished buildings that are now homes for thousands of squatters.


 In another direction, homes and soccer and the ocean under a permanently white sky. The vast majority of Luanda residents live in inappropriate shelters made with inappropriate materials (confirmed by most recent survey, over 80%)

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Should Childhood be Relative?

The average lifespan in the US is about 74 years, longer for ladies. I think it is partly awareness of the probable length of our lives that allows us, both as a culture and as individuals, to determine when certain milestones in life, from finishing school to working to marriage to having children, should take place. It is also important to note that for most people their Healthy Life Years will continue well past the time they might consider starting a family.

But what if it wasn't so certain? To what extent would we change our expectations about what should happen and when? What if the average lifespan was 47, so you figure, give or take you'll probably live to be somewhere between 42 and 52. What would you do differently? I've been trying to ask myself these questions when moving around Angola, rather than reacting with shock at the sheer number of girls who have children or are pregnant. I have been told several times that by 14 or 15 girls will be encouraged to get married by their parents (remembering that if this is the average cited age, girls do marry earlier).  Then there's also infant and child mortality to consider, despite incredibly poor data collection, according to UNICEF, Angola has the second highest under-5 mortality ranking in the world, 220 children out of every 1,000 born will die before they reach the age of 5.  In realistic terms this means that women must have many children to ensure that several of them reach adulthood.

On one hand girls may not agree to these marriages, some might call them child brides, they are marrying below the age of consent and their husbands are almost always older.  I am having trouble reconciling how I feel about the whole situation. On one hand these girls deserve a childhood, an adolescence, during which they can grow up, go to school, be able to make good decisions before they have children of their own. On the other hand waiting until 30 just isn't a option. Because the lifespan here is so much shorter, every stage of life is shortened as well.

However, I cannot, in good conscience, say that I agree with encouraging girls to marry at 14, immediately bear children and leave school. The most telling point that comes out of a myriad of studies that I won't repeat here (the one linked to is just an example) is that the closest proxy indicator for the health of children is the years of education of their mother. Women with more years of education are more likely to have healthy children. So by either encouraging or forcing girls to leave school when very young, we're not only curbing their knowledge and perhaps future earning capacity, but also the health of their children and future generations.

Here we have looked at a program that allows children who have fallen behind in school, whether because of the conflict or working or poor academic performance to get "caught up". Each calendar year they complete two academic years, eventually aiming to integrate them with their same-aged peers. A striking "strength" of the program that was listed was that it allows girls to complete more years of schooling before marriage. True. It is a treatment but not a cure. Girls are more likely to go to school while pregnant and after giving birth because the program continues to welcome them. Also good.

But what would be the harm in waiting until 16? 18? There was a time when such marrying and childbearing ages were the norm in the West. In the current cultural standard here wait that long just isn't acceptable, something must be wrong with you if you haven't married by those ages. But as healthcare quality and access and longevity increases, as parents (who are also likely to have low educational attainment, if not be illiterate) and society begin to value girls and their education more, the average marrying age is likely to increase. But until then, meeting women my age who have given birth more times than they can count on one hand will never cease to amaze me. My own (and perhaps yours as well) extended adolescence seems like quite a gift and a privilege.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Letters Home

The traffic in Luanda is generally horrific. I know I know, it's bad wherever you live too. You live in the city with the worst traffic. I believe you. But for real. Literally constant gridlock with extraordinarily aggressive drivers, scant streetlights that do not work EVER, occasional police directing traffic (but they most often stand at the side of the road rather than direct), and lots of motorcycles, little van/taxis stopping every 10 feet, but oh the gridlock! So in the time I spend in cars each day being driven here are there I generally have two choices: listen or think. Listening takes much more effort as it's in Portuguese and requires my full attention, so if I'm tired I just don't listen.  Today on the way to work I was thinking about blog topics and considering which of the ones I've been considering is appropriate to write about. It occurred to me that we all edit our lives in some form or another, whether downplaying or exaggerating, we are all writing our own story, amending it for the time, place and audience. But this leaves some stories untold, I think particularly in my case as many of things I do or work on feel like they're not appropriate for public banter. On the other hand this is my blog, you all know what I do for a living, and if you don't know you will, and of course all of you are always free to ignore me. So rather than editing down where I am for public consumption, I'll see what I can do about showing you all a bit more and telling stories a bit less. Forgive me for the long introduction...

NOTE: The rest of this post addresses attitudes about rape here, feel free to skip

First a few introductory anecdotes:

After dinner with friends...
Me: Aww you like Kobe Bryant? How come!
1 of 3 men at the table: What? Why shouldn't I like him?
Me: Well he's a Laker, and a rapist for that matter.
1 of 3: Well aren't we all.
All 3 laugh.

I walk into a classroom where older kids learn to read and write, on one wall is letter with examples of words, on another are posters encouraging positive social behaviors. One poster shows a girl crying in a field and a man fastening his pants. Below it reads "What are the consequences of rape?" (called violacao or violation in Portuguese).

In the car yesterday on the way to visit pre-schools the others in my car were talking, I heard one person say "Her stepfather I can understand, but her father? And to get pregnant?", "But who is to blame in this case?"
They all agree it is the girl's fault, she should not have been "having an affair" with her father.

Each of these cases demonstrates a little bit about the climate and attitude here about rape, and incest for that matter. It is much more widely discussed than in the US, for instance on the radio on the way to work this morning a woman, live, was describing how a week ago "bandidos" broke into her home, raped her young daughter, and tried to rape her too. Can you imagine a rape survivor doing this in the US just a week after it happened? I heard through word of mouth that the 14 year old daughter of a guard at my guesthouse was raped last weekend at a family party and is still in the hospital. Rape is rarely, if ever, so known and discussed in the US.

But there are differences here. Many of the cases are discussing stranger rape, so it presents a big bad other that people can join in talking about; it is very different than spousal or acquaintance rape. On the other hand it really is a topic of conversation here, literally swapping stories of the rapes of other people over dinner. On one hand maybe this could help take the shame and blame away from survivors, but upon hearing that a daughter is to blame for incest, this is certainly not the case.

I think my conclusion is that, despite the fact that discussions of rape are not hidden here, it does not signify that the population is more sensitive to survivors, better able to provide support, or doing more to prevent rape and more harshly punish rapists. I think it's that it's titillating. It's seeing and hearing about violence without identifying or feeling empathy beyond thinking it's a shame. If we think of the poster, where the girl is crying in a field and a man is fastening his belt, and we're asked what the consequences of rape are, tells us a lot. The poster's goal is to raise our awareness about the fact that rape has victims, that it hurts someone. Can you imagine? And if we consider communal status and gender, before we can convince men (I am generalizing here, but it is generally true) not to rape, we must convince them that rape hurts women and girls. And it is not enough to show hurt, we must make them care that women and girls are hurt. Beyond decreasing their worth as brides and ability to fetch water, building a society that values its women and girls, those that are relatives and those that are not, making men believe that all women and children deserve safety and protection. 

In fact, I think ongoing conversations about rape serve to desensitize the community, so rape is not such a bad thing, since it happens to so many girls and women. This phenomenon of rape as frighteningly common, to the extent that it is expected, is not new and it is certainly not unique to Angola. On the other hand, I think we must draw a line somewhere as to what will be tolerated in media and even private conversation and I think everything from glorifying to normalizing rape has crossed it. But then, who am I? If I stopped and protested to all conversations about rape I would not only alienate myself, but my co-workers and those I am trying to work with. And so I stop listening in Portuguese and think instead, wondering if our convictions grow a little weaker every time they are unspoken.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Angolan Researcher: You shouldn’t tell people here you’re American [here is rural Angola]
Me: Ok, what should I tell them? I’m also Canadian
Angolan Researcher: No not Canadian, tell them you’re Norwegian, there’s lots of them here
Me: But I don’t speak Norwegian…
Angolan Researcher: Neither do the people living here.

** for an explanation of why being American isn't the best here, google Angola civil war and USA

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Saturday in Luanda

I've been in Luanda, Angola almost two weeks and rather than try to catch you all up all at once, let me start with telling you about today.

6:30am The man staying in the room next to mine at my guesthouse receives a phonecall. The walls are thin an there is a space where they don't quite meet. He chatter in Portuguese long enough to wake me up.

9am Breakfast. The options are white bread, butter, sliced cheese and sliced ham, juice, instant coffee, tea. I have bread with cheese and my own delicious coffee (hooray for my travel french press). I am eating with one woman from Mozambique and another from Quebec. Over breakfast we discuss the role the Angolan war had in ending apartheid in South Africa, among other things.

11am Walking to a supermarket (Boa Fresca?) which is about 15 minutes away with one lady from Germany and same lady from Quebec. Crossing streets is hazardous to say the least as existing traffic lights rarely work, and when they do people rarely obey them. It is my first visit to Fresca, which must be the fanciest supermarket in the city. Luanda in incredibly expensive for everything, but some prices are just astronomical. For example: about 1 lb of cherries was $27USD, about a quart of white button mushrooms was $12, Marie Bon (or something) jam was $11-18 per jar depending on the flavor. No wonder this is the most expensive city in the world for ex-pats!  I was buying ingredients for pineapple upside down cake (very small bag of flour, very small sugar, baking powder) and a bottle of wine, it was $35. Don't judge my priorities because I spent so much on cake and wine! Just a slice of cake is $8 or 10 at a bakery so it makes sense :) right?

1pm Cake baking in the kitchen of my guesthouse. The woman in charge of the guesthouse has two young children (6 and 1.5 years) who are here now. She is making them lunch while I'm baking. The little girl sits on the floor banging on a plastic bottle with a spoon, the little boy watches his sister and cartoons. They eat chicken and beans and fufu (kind of like ugali or white polenta) on the porch. A new batch of people have arrived to stay from Cameroon and go around making introductions. The languages of the house tend to be French and English at the moment, with Portuguese mixed in when Angolans are around.

2pm I am finally ready to cook my cake. The little girl grabs a box of matches and throws them in the air. I then try to pick them up as she tries to eat them. I go to use the oven, which I've been told works, but to no avail. I have to wait until the ex-boyfriend of the owner (who is not the caretaker) arrives to light it for me. There is no temperature control.

2:20pm My cake looks done but we'll see! Tonight we are having a dinner with about 5 or 6 people staying at the house, so far the menu is guacamole for a starter, thai curry chicken for the main course (I'll steal sauce and rice and mix with beans or tuna) and pineapple cake for dessert! I'm now off to do some data analysis/chart prep for the report for the work I did in the Pacific. No real days off here, but on the other hand I usually get picked up to go to work at 7am, so today feels very lazy.

I hope everyone is well and enjoying summer (it's winter here). More to come on substantive issues as there are many! For instance, the attitude of people here curiously reminds me of New York. Foreigners talk about how rude Angolans are, I assume they're indifferent and, like New Yorkers, would step over you if you fell while crossing the street (not that that ever happened to me in New York...)

(Also, picture taking here is pretty tricky so I've taken zero so far, but I'll work on it!)

More soon!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

a little challenge

for all my public healthers, water and sanitationers and anyone else who thinks they've got an answer. read through the scenario below, got any ideas about what should be done? Let me know or just post them below!

Imagine an island. A very long island, miles and miles long, curving around in a C shape, ranging between a few yards to a few hundred feet wide at various points. The highest point on the island as about 2 meters.  On one side of the island is the lagoon, at high tide the water is a foot or two deep, at low tide there is no water, and little plants and creatures begin to grow. The lagoon extends hundreds of meters from the shore on the lagoon side of the island. Almost the entire island is sandy, so very little can grow, and anything and everything seeps into the earth. That's the topography.

This island is in a place steeped in tradition that still has relatively few ex-pats and foreign visitors compared to similar islands in its region. Some houses have electricity. Most collect rainwater for drinking as the water table is high and the quality of well water is debatable. There is very little opportunity, especially for women, on the island, so the amount of financial input available at the household level is low. One would imagine the government has a significant amount of money from revenue from licensing rights to fishing its water, but at first glance very little of it reaches the ground.

So here's the question. Imagine that almost no one on this island, has a toilet, beyond office buildings. Then imagine that no one has latrines either. So where do the people on this island go to the bathroom (98,000 in the country, about 30,000 on this particular island which is relatively densely populated)? They go behind bushes, in their backyards, and they go in the lagoon. Mostly the lagoon. They also catch fish and seafood in the lagoon for eating. So what's the answer? The current situation is a recipe for spread of disease, and if something like cholera ever showed up it would be a disaster.

But installing a sewage system is pretty much out of the question, the money just isn't there. Latrines could work, but each would have to be lined with thick plastic sheeting because of the sandy soil, and then pumped regularly. But there's nowhere to put the raw sewage, no place on the island to dispose of it. Some combination of public health wisdom and water and sanitation engineering know-how must be able to come up with some options! Let me know what you come up with!

P.S. Went swimming in the lagoon before I know all this. Thankfully I was laying on my back looking at the sky and didn't catch anything, knock on wood!
P.P.S. The place described above is Kiribati, fascinating and amazing country and the last stop on my Pacific research trip. Google image Tarawa to see what the island looks like. Home again on Tuesday evening!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Southerners and Texans

Before I left Truckee to head out on my current trip (Vanuatu and Kiribati - just 16 days) I was having a discussion with a roommate of mine about the difference between Southerners and Texans, and how Texans are not Southerners, nor do Southerners or Texans like that confusion (he's from TN and I went to college in GA so it's a discussion we've both had before). For people from the rest of the country it's not a distinction that matters particularly. But then, confusing people from similar regions and equating them is often a touchy point, calling a New Yorker a New Englander, or thinking Northern and Southern California are pretty much the same.

But then here I am, in a vast region of the world rarely paid too much attention: the Pacific. And while I'm trying to let myself visit each country anew, to answer the same questions, but start from scratch, not assuming that the realities related to the care of children are the same. But I find myself falling into the trap of generalizing about "the Pacific".  So, to try to get back on target with the child protection research I'm participating in, and to share some interesting highlights from the research so far I thought I'd talk a bit about rights.

My first day in my "Public Health and Humanitarian Action" course someone raised their hand and said "but what about approaching this from a rights perspective?" I'm sure people have varying degrees of knowledge about what a rights based approach is, but essentially it uses human rights as a framework for humanitarian intervention and development. Part of this approach, especially concerning child protection, is to teach children what their rights are. For instance the right to be safe and not be abused, the right to adequate nutrition, the right to education. The thought being that if children know that these are things they have a right to (or to be safe from) when those rights are abused they are more likely to tell someone/advocate for themselves etc, and are better prepared to participate in the process of realizing their rights.

So. It sounds pretty fantastic. Children know their rights. They advocate for them. Rights are realized. The sky is full of rainbows. What could possible go wrong?

Go ahead and translate rights into Solomon Islands pidgin. The closest word is power. Ah so now all the posters and billboards are advocating "Child Power" in a culture where children are better seen and not heard and are on the bottom of the proverbial totem pole as status and power are supposed to come with age. So it looks like children's power over adults is being advocated, trying to subvert traditional practices. So most locals ignore the programs and signs, some find them insulting, most think they are irrelevant.

But the promotion of child rights is a global strategy to encourage the realization of child rights. It makes sense in theory, but as is apparent here, not always in practice. In the Solomon Islands, as I wrote previously, children are not the center of families as they are in much of the West. Families don't move so children can go to a good school, children are sent away, for instance. The good of the family is paramount, rather than the good of its individual members. So promoting the good of individual members, particularly those that are "least important" is like trying to change the traditions there.

So what's a better option? Realizing child rights is an incredibly important goal, but as long as they are realized, is calling them rights, and having them understood as such by the local population, the most important thing? Perhaps awareness raising campaigns could focus on the strength of families? Healthy children make strong families. Educated children make families stronger. If your wantok are treated well and are successful they can support you in the future. There are many ways to approach it that are all more culturally relevant and locally acceptable than using the same child rights approach used else. What about adapting strategies to local conditions?
Also, just think how well received the campaign on women's rights is. Woman power? Yikes. Hopefully more on gender in the Pacific next time!

Until then, it's pouring rain here so no beach time for me and I won't come back with a tan. I do feel bad for all the tourists and honeymooners though!

I'll try to put up pictures once I find some faster internet, happy summer to everyone!

Friday, May 21, 2010

Lukim iu!

Lukim iu means "see you" in Solomon Islands pigin. Literally "look-em you". Like so much in the Solomon Islands, quite sensical once you know what's happening, but utterly confusing at first. I can't believe I went through almost my whole time here without lots of blog updates!  I'll blame it partially on being very busy with work, long days when the last thing you want to do after finishing work is more writing and staring at a computer. Also, I had lots of good company (research partner and Doug and local friends) for most of the trip, also cutting into my blogging time. I have every intention of picking up the pace though.

So here's a few highlights...
Started off with two weeks in Suva, Fiji. Sadly not the Fiji where I got to sit on a beach sipping drinks with umbrellas, but very interesting. Our work in the South Pacific has to do with children who live away from their parents, a very common practice, and essentially figuring out and explaining why they leave, where they go, who cares for them when they get there, any increased risks associated with moving and whether there's a need for increased intervention and support, and if so, what? For all my public healthers reading this, yes it's huge. Linda would fail the person who wrote the research questions. It's outrageously broad, it's across 4 countries with vastly different cultures and traditions both inside and between the countries, as they're sets of islands. But what's been really good is that as things have come up, we've been more free to follow them and see where they go. For instance, Fiji is on the US State Department tier 3 (the worst) for countries addressing human trafficking. It's a big deal because it means that the US will vote No for any loans Fiji wants from the IMF. Fiji currently wants a billion dollars. So in turn Fiji is now making strides to address trafficking. Bringing the organization we're working to up to date on the international trends and norms, as well as ongoing (and pretty fierce) debates related to trafficking was exciting and will hopefully amount to something. Updates on the intricacies of the debate later, much of it involved people shaking their heads at the the US State Department, sadly.

Then it was off to the Solomon Islands, a world away from Fiji, but really interesting in its own right. This feels like too short a space to talk about all of it, so we'll table this too, aside from saying that the cultural norms in the Solomons are unlike anything I've encountered before, making the standard awareness raising activities and programming implemented by NGOs and UN alike somewhat less applicable in some cases.

I see I've got lots to write about!  But mostly I just wanted to say lukim you all soon (I hope!) because I'm flying home from Fiji today, arriving in Reno on Saturday night and will be stateside for 3 whole weeks before I head out again!  It'll be a packed 3 weeks but I can't wait, aside from the fact that it's supposed to snow in Truckee on Saturday and Sunday.  Back to more substantive things in the future I promise.  Hope everyone's well and be in touch while I'm home!

And just to promote a little Solomon Islands tourism, this is Maravagi and one of the most beautiful places ever. Always nice to have islands nearby to visit on the weekends. I swear I was working hard the rest of the time (photos of offices aren't nearly as exciting).

Giant sting ray, feet and feet across. Also in Maravagi.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Same same but different

Every story I've heard that references that phrase "Same same, but different" or something like it originates in South Asia. For instance a friend of mine at school was visiting India with her sister and had several people pointed at them while repeating it, remarking on how much they looked alike. Quite an apt expression to describe the past few days. While I've never been to the South Pacific before the nerve testing trip over has already prepared me somewhat for returning to island speed, african speed or the often siesta loving speed of Latin America.

I left LA on the evening of the 24th and had the fabulous luck of being bumped up to business class, literally seat 1A with an empty seat next to me.  After my complementary glass of champagne, I picked the udon noodles with asian vegetables and tofu for dinner. Not the hard life in the least. I even managed to get some sleep on the flight which has literally never happened before.

My flight was meant to land at 5am local time on Monday the 26th (we crossed the date line), so at 3 or so the entire plane is woken up to have breakfast. After we're through with out muffins and yogurt and fresh fruit and blueberry french toast with strawberry sauce (!!!) the captain came on the overhead speaker. There was a plane blocking the runway in Nadi, Fiji, so we couldn't land. Rather than circle we were headed to Samoa to refuel and wait it out. I forgot my watch so I wasn't totally aware of the time, but relatively soon afterwards we were on the ground in beautiful Samoa.

But wait. Whoever came up with this plan may have forgotten that you cross back over the dateline to get to Samoa. That means it is early Sunday morning here and the airport is literally abandoned because everyone is sleeping or in church... An hour passes... the captain announces that the person who is in charge of the airport has been located and will be here to help us refuel, and maybe we'll even get to get off the plane. But he won't be here for an hour.  A few people slowly trickle into the airport, donning fluorescent vests. Someone in my row on the other side of plane asks what's happening outside. I look out and everyone who showed up is enjoying a glass of juice. Seriously. Not that I'm against juice drinking. But everyone was getting antsy. The runway had been cleared in Nadi almost as soon as we'd landed in Samoa, but we couldn't get anywhere without more fuel. About 3 hours later we had fuel and were on our way.

Little did I know we'd flown 1.5 hours out of our way to get to Samoa. We were supposed to land at 5am or so, my flight to Suva, Fiji was at 7:30.  We landed in Nadi past 2pm. Oi vey. But luckily everything went smoothly from there. I sat for a couple hours waiting for my rebooked flight, made the 1/2 hour trip with no trouble and have arrived safely at my lovely hotel. I'm now trying not to fall asleep and looking forward to meeting the gentleman I'll be conducting research with. My first taste of Fijian cuisine will be tonight courtesy of my guesthouse which is exciting. Beyond that I'm excited to get to work (and more than just a little happy to be far away from the snowstorm meant to begin tomorrow in Truckee).

Take care and more updates to come!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

here and there

Lately I've started reading blogs that are rather uncharacteristic for me... they're full of lovely pictures and places and things and are posted merely because they're beautiful. I see the value in recognizing beauty everywhere and taking it in. Over the past few months I've had what some people would consider a lifetime of experiences to look back on when I'm frustrated, to remind me to be calm. Above is an open highway in a part of Nevada that could only be described as deserted and serene. I'm imagining I'm there, I'm breathing deeply.

But what I really want to do is fly to Australia/the South Pacific and wreak some havoc. I heard yesterday that I'm supposed to fly to the South Pacific on Saturday.  I'm the research assistant on a project in Fiji, Kiribati, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu and we have been negotiating contracts since at least February.  After having team members resign several times I was committed to the project falling through or at the very least starting several weeks later. Imagine my surprise when I got an email asking me to confirm my ticket leaving in 5 days.  But as frustrating as the contract negotiations were, over the past day I've gotten more confused emails about tickets and arrivals and when and where we're going than I can imagine. No wonder people question the functionality of nonprofit organizations.

Anyhow, I'm calmer now, it looks like I'm really going, I've dug out my umbrella and found my bugspray which I hear are essential.  I'm hypothetically going to be gone from April 24 - May 21, then heading back from June 14-June 30. But as I've seen any of this could change. But the good news is that it's a really exciting project and it's the first non-programmatic research I've done. Research for the sake of research and learning more about what's happening. For everyone who has been following my blog for a while, it addresses some of the questions I brought up when visiting orphanages in Indonesia. More details to come.

I imagine this newfound patience will come in handy in the South Pacific, as I've heard things move very slowly. But then again, everywhere I go, people warn me it moves too slowly; but perhaps if everywhere is different from here, then we're going too fast, rather than the other way around? Back to my snowy Sierra town for now, and happy spring to everyone who lives somewhere with flowers! (Below is from Point Reyes National Seashore)

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

another year older and deeper in debt

St. Peter don't you call me, 'cause I won't go. I owe my soul to the company store." More figuratively than literally of course, given that I don't think Safeway would let me buy Almond Milk on credit...  This is one of my favorite songs my mum sang to me growing up. I've been a bit nostalgic lately, between rummaging through old papers and finding high school essays, trying to figure out a name for the LLC I'm going to start (suggestions are more than welcome) and turning the big 2-6. But it's all okay because I get a snow day for my birthday. It started coming down this evening so I should get some fresh lines at Sugarbowl as a birthday present from Mother Nature (or whoever you choose to believe is sending me the fluffy white stuff).  So in the vein of archives and nostalgia, below is an essay I wrote for my rhetoric class when I was a senior in high school. I don't remember the assignment, but just coming across it made me smile. It's a bit long, I know, but I'm always happy to provide a little procrastination help. Here's to playing in the snow.

Double Digits
I can hear the radiator clanking as  I hide underneath my covers for one more minute. It sounds like someone swinging at a metal pipe with a hammer. Slowly, the clanks turn to clicks. My room is warm enough for me to venture outside of my fire engine-red bunk bed onto the chilly wood floors. I open my eyes slowly, anticipating the sea of bobbing colors on my floor. My entire room is filled with balloons. I can't set foot out of bed without kicking one, or popping one. This year they are red, yellow, blue and green, my favorite colors at the moment. I stand, shivering in my nightgown, amazed at how different my room looks with these globes in it, wondering how many of my mum and dad's breaths it took to fill them all. I pick one up and punt it across the room. It bounces off the kite hanging from my overhead light. I smile as the kite sways and the canary colored balloon floats to the floors, scattering the balloons it hits.

I need to hurry now. It is Tuesday and I have to get to school on time, I've already been late once this week. But I think Mrs. Alloway will forgive me, she'll be as excited as I am that I'm turning ten today. I can't believe it! I'm finally in the double digits, as Amanda keeps telling me. She says it means I'm getting old and that my brain is going to start decaying soon. I wish I were her big sister, then I'd be able to scare her with facts like that. Today she doesn't matter though, she has to be nice to me because it's my birthday. Pushing some balloons out of the way I open my door, and just like every year, the door is now a curtain made out of streamers. They hang down, swaying slightly, and I can imagine I'm a princess emerging from my royal chamber. I cross the hall to the bathroom; I want to look in the mirror just to be sure that no one can tell my brain has started decaying.

I begin walking down the hallway towards the kitchen, hoping for something yummy for breakfast, when I remember the most important guest on my birthday. I jump up so I can see the top shelf of my closet. I know he's up there somewhere! Finally, he tumbles down with all my other stuffed animals. Birthday Bear only comes out once a year, and today's his day. He's a CareBear whom I got on my second or third birthday. It's his birthday today, too, and he always sits at the table with me while I open my presents. Now I'm ready to begin my birthday.

Tip-toeing down the hall with Birthday Bear under one arm, and a balloon under the other, I sneak up on Amanda and bop her on the head with the latter. She gives me a mean look, then smiles, steals my balloon and hits me with it. Still holding my balloon, she runs away laughing, "Happy Birthday Watermelon Head!"

My dad is cooking my favorite breakfast, a bowl of Spaghetti-O's and a tall glass of milk (with a twisty straw of course). I peak around the corner into the dining room, and I am happy to see exactly what I anticipated. There are streamers, in the same colors as the ones across my door, hanging from the chandelier and radiating out to all sides of the room. There are clusters of balloons in every corner and loose balloons bouncing around the floor. On my chair there are yellow (always my very favorite color) balloons tied to the back. Then I catch my breath. Snow! Our entire porch is covered in snow, at least a foot!

I spin around, and with wide eyed amazement point to the porch. My dad tells me it started snowing as soon as I went to bed last night and stopped around seven o'clock this morning. "It's a snow day, just for you, for your birthday!" I excitedly scream to Amanda that we don't have school. She walks in, with a knowing look on her face. She has been up since early this morning watching the schools closings; obviously there's no school. Determined not to let her ruin my good mood, I pull on my snow boots and run outside in my nightgown. I jump into the snow on the porch and it goes past my knees. I run back inside, freezing cold, and ecstatic. A day off on my birthday, what more could I ask for?

I wolf down my breakfast, and gulp down my milk. I don't even stop to blow bubbles in my milk to make Amanda laugh. Not only do I want to open all the presents next to my chair, but I want to get outside and play in the fresh snow before everyone else ruins it.

Turning my head to look back at the dining room table as my mum zips my jack I can't help but smile. I have gotten all sorts of neat presents, and Birthday Bear will watch over them for me until I get back. I lumber out the door, padded from head to toe, and looking a bit like The Pillsbury Dough Boy. As soon as I get to the bottom of our stairs, Amanda pushes me face-first in the snow. I stand up and jump on her back, taking her down with me this time. Once we are too tired to get up again, we decide it is time for a plan of action. The snow is so deep that it is really tiring to walk in. So, we have to decide what we want to go, then get there as soon as we can. Amanda wants to walk to Kineen's Park and go sledding. I tell her that she can go, but I am going to the the Leaf Pile. Quickly changing her mind, Amanda agrees and run off towards the boundary of our yard.

The Leaf Pile is a collection of leaves raked from our neighbor's huge yard over the past twenty years at least. They have never been removed, and the Pile is added to every year. At its peak, it is at least fifteen feet, if not taller. We scramble to the top just in time to see Kelsey, Tory, and Jen coming through the woods towards us. Determined to take the first jump, I stand up and prepare to take the plunge. Amanda protests, saying she should go first because she is the oldest. I just smile at her, and leap over the edge. As I slide to the bottom I see my friend arriving above me. "Nice jump!" they call.
"Yeah, you got real air too!" yells Ned, Jen's neighbor.

Then I see them all huddle, and they turn around and throw armloads of snow down on me. While I am still pinned beneath all the snow, they sing Happy Birthday to me; purposefully off key, of course.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

North San Juan

The plan was to head to Homewood to ride if it snowed at least 3" overnight. It snowed about 1. Since our passes to Sugarbowl are only good M-F we needed to find something else to do with ourselves. And so we set out onto 89, away from, rather than towards, all the crowds from the Bay congesting the roads near the ski resorts.

The houses went from beautiful amber colored vacation homes to well lived in small homes and trailers quickly. Going in and out of Tahoe National Forest we started the loop that goes from Truckee out 89 to Sierraville, West to Nevada City and comes back around on I-80. The elevation ranged from over 8,000 ft where it was snowing, down below 2,000 ft where it was raining or misty and the granite cliffs and moss reminded me of British Columbia.  Several hours in, after finding one little town where everything was closed, we decided to stop for a little cocoa in North San Juan. Unfortunately the hope of finding an isolated Puerto Rican community in rural California didn't pan out.  We walked into Yuki's Fountain, not quite sure what to expect, with the window advertising breakfast, homemade pastries and oriental cuisine. We sat at the counter, with local eating omelettes and hash browns to one side and teriyaki yakisoba to the other. Yaki'd Fountain is owned by a Japanese woman, astounding in this town of under 600 people. The first page of the menu was full of traditional American favorites and the second was full of "oriental" selections.  Behind us on the wall was a hand painted family tree with photos of at least 50 people pasted on it.  And I thought I lived in a small town.

This was a great adventure after more than 5 weeks rehabbing a knee injury.  But thankfully it's snowing more now, I'm working on getting back on a board and things are looking up. Apologies for the lack of posts but sitting at home icing a knee isn't much to write about. Much more in the future!

P.S. I have a number of people on an email list for this blog, mostly from when I was traveling. If you receive this post as an email and would like to stay on the email list, just forward this to me, otherwise I'll just take you off, since I'd hate to bother you with my snowy tales.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Go West

Here's a quick version of all the excitement from our cross country road trip, Dec 26th - 29th, 2009.

Day 1
We set out from Concord, MA the morning after Christmas after some repacking to fit presents, pictures and snowshoes.  Hearing about the storm and state of emergency that'd been declared in the midwest after an incredible snowstorm we were a bit worried but undeterred. Through Massachusetts, New York and Northern Pennsylvania were all relatively uneventful.  Moving through Ohio things began to get more exciting. There were overturned cars littering the sides of the highway and the median all the way across the midwest for the next few days. Although the days were bright and clear, mounds of snow that looked like dunes because of the high winds framed the road. After our first full day we arrived in Sandusky, Ohio.

Overnight in Sandusky, Ohio
We were reassured by the elderly couple in front of us in line that we were, in fact, at the cheapest place to stay in Sandusky (Motel 6 of course).  We drove up the road to an Italian restaurant dedicated to Frank Sinatra and got to listen to a group of young men next to us, discussing their holidays, their wives and why married men should have unlimited access to prescription drugs. Funny for sure, and a good introduction to the small town we were headed towards.

Day 2
We started out bright and early, and after a roadside breakfast (courtesy of Bronco) we got to driving.  We passed "The Biggest Truck Stop in the World", along with more and more overturned cars and jackknifed tractor trailers.  Alternating between radio and CDs, we managed to entertain ourselves quite well. That evening, determined to find a hotel with a gym, we scoured rest stops for coupon books, crossing our fingers.

Overnight on the Iowa Nebraska border
We ended up at a Best Western in a town full of casinos on the Iowa Nebraska border. As I went out in search of dinner I blindly put my faith in the GPS and ended up lost, in the middle of a neighborhood and past the industrial park that flanked the city. When I finally made my way back to the urban area I found casino after casino, a Hooters, a Ruby Tuesdays and several bars with no windows, but no grocery store and nowhere that looked promising for dinner. I pulled up to a gas station, and as a man in full camo, a hunting vest and a black hat/face cover combo came out, I was sure the place had just been robbed. Luckily I was wrong and managed to find dinner and made my way back to the hotel. 

Day 3
The next morning I went to the front desk for the key to the gym. After the young woman at the front desk gave it to me and I headed to the gym, I had to go back to the front desk because the door that led to the door I had the key to was locked. As she explained that the building manager had the key, but he was at home because he got stuck in the hotel on Christmas and that even if she called him he might not answer, I began to suspect I wouldn't be getting in. I asked if anyone else had a key. She explained that the maid did, but that although she had a key she didn't know how to open the door. The young woman I was speaking to did know how to open the door, but couldn't leave the front desk to do so. Shaking my head and tired of walking up and down long halls, I joined Doug at breakfast, excited to find that biscuits and homemade gravy in a crock-pot were standard fare.

The day only got more exciting from there. We crossed the immense state of Nebraska, full of snow and overturned cars, as well as beautiful flat farms as far as the eye could see. There were lots of cows at first and as we crossed Nebraska and into Wyoming we even saw some live coyotes (as opposed to the ones that had been hit by cars that littered the road).  We stopped for lunch at {someone's} Big Game restaurant, after it had been advertised on billboards for 150 miles. Walking in to a stuffed polar bear stepping on a stuffed baby seal, we knew we were in the right place. With animal heads and camo as far as the eye could see, we ate an absolutely delicious lunch, including some awesome cowboy baked beans and sweet potato casserole.

Overnight in Rawlins, Wyoming
As the night closed in on us with another amazing sunset and finally some mountains, along with single digit temperatures, we realized that we'd gotten farther than expected and could get to Truckee, CA by about 6pm the next day, rather than spending another two days driving as expected.

We stopped in Rawlins, Wyoming, unwisely ignoring the oil refinery and funny smell as we rolled into town. We drove past the chain hotels, hoping for something great, and found the Sunset Motel. Advertising a phone and cable tv in the rooms, we knew we'd found the place. It was actually quite reminiscent of the Sunset Motel we stayed in in White Sand, NM last March.  It was the first time we got to our motel early, so we decided to explore downtown Rawlins (a place where the entire town literally smelled). Our first stop, Tico's Bar and Restaurant was incredible. Exciting facial hair and mullets galore, smoking indoors, and PBR on tap were all around.  We left there and headed down the street to somewhere that reminded me of the atmosphere at Vortex in Atlanta. Nice beer and friendly people, but we decided to have dinner at an old home that had been turned into a restaurant up the street. There were about 5 tables, one waiter and "the only salad bar in Rawlins". The food was fantastic and it was a great last dinner on the road.

Day 4
We left the Sunset Motel at 7 the next morning, hopeful that we'd get a great view of the rest of Wyoming, Nevada and maybe even going into Truckee in daylight. Sadly it was cloudy and even bombing snow at some points, so we'll just have to go back to get a full view of the salt flats and everything between Salt Lake City and Reno.  After narrowly missing being sideswiped by a car during the snowstorm in Salt Lake and white knuckles on the wheel, we finally made it through. In honor of reaching the land of delicious cheap Mexican food we had exactly that for lunch. We reached Reno after nightfall, but after our roommate warned us it'd take weeks to get the stripper dust and desperation out of our clothes, we sped on to Truckee, knowing we'd be back soon as Reno is the closest city to us.  We arrived and we greeted by 3 great roommates, an incredible house and even homemade lasagna for dinner.

We've settled in, set up and stored lots of stuff over the garage, decided what hills to buy passes to, gone snowshoeing and scoped out places to ride that are off the map and totally untouched.  It has snowed almost every day since our arrival, but also gets up into the 30s or 40s during the day so you don't freeze. Pretty incredible. Now we're just waiting for Monday, when we start to ride, and visitors of course!

Happy New Year and here's to new adventures in 2010

Also, if you'd like to see some pictures (lots of which were taken by me!) check out Doug's blog, my favorite is the one of the truck.