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Goodbye House

Goodbye House

Goodbye house. I have such conflicting feelings knowing that today your sale was finalized, and you now belong to someone else. I remember when we first met, D and I walking through your rooms, falling in love with you a little more with each step. A 3-bed, 2.5 bath, 3-level town house, with 1 car garage, laundry, basement, kitchen, living room, and lots of extra space, in a great neighborhood which was kid friendly and close to good schools. We walked through you that day over eight years ago, dreaming of the family we would have within your walls. We fell in love with the kitchen walls, 2 painted a yellowish orange and 2 painted an orangish red; it wasn't until years later that my sister-in-law pointed out to us that they were the colors of Winnie The Pooh. We loved the open floor plan, and imagined kids playing in the living room, basement, and back yard. We knew we were going to place an offer on you; walking around, we felt HOME.

I remember the anxiety we felt as we waited to see if our offer would be accepted, and the feeling of sheer happiness we felt when we learned that we were now homeowners of our first house. We were now responsible homeowner adults, ready to start our family. I remember the giddiness we felt when we bought our new bedroom set, to fit into our new bedroom. We set the second bedroom up as a guest room, expecting family and friends to come and visit us, and we had a place for them to stay (And, a few friends even did come and visit, and stay with us!). The 3rd bedroom, we left empty. A first, it was our storage for things we had not yet unpacked, then it was things we didn't know what to do with. We didn't furnish it, as we didn't know when it would be needed - so, we thought it was easiest to leave it empty, rather than do something with the space only to redo it once a nursery was needed.

As the years went on, we watched our neighbors' kids get older. The daughter of our next door neighbor married, then had a son. Kids came around at Halloween; kids came selling the random wrapping paper/chocolates/raffle tickets for their various school functions; our court had 4 July party every year. That bedroom stayed empty.

After a few years, we finally learned the reason why that room stayed empty (discussed in earlier posts). I quit my job at the time and started a new path for myself through consulting and returning to international development. House, I continued to love you, but at the same time I felt like I was being mocked - your rooms would no longer have children growing up in them, the stairs would never have little feet running up and down the stairs. I now felt like an imposter in this family focused court close to good schools. Escaping this suburban prison into the wider world, I felt alive again.

During my second contract overseas, D surprised me by turning that empty room into an office. At first, I told him no; I found myself clinging to "life before infertility" - I wanted to pretend again that everything would be ok, that THIS ROOM WOULD STILL HAVE PURPOSE.......
Then I realized, wait, my life does have purpose, and I didn't need to have a child under my own roof to have a meaningful, purposeful life. D's changing the room into an office actually helped me realize that my consulting was not a whim, but was my future. I also slowly realized the need to recognize grief and go through the stages of mourning. I started to compare myself to a mother who lost a child - the child's bedroom is often left like a shrine, until the parents are finally ready to go in; then, over time, they clean the room, finally clean the sheets, and maybe, when they are ready, pack the things in the room up for sale/charity/storage of keepsakes. I was doing the same with this room, though we had no funeral, communal support, ar anything physical to deal with. We were mourning the death of an idea, the death of a future we had assumed we would live. We mourned the death of the perfect child, perfect because they lived in our minds and imaginations.

During the next 2 years of consulting, D stayed behind caring for the house and cats while I spent time overseas for work (again, if you are new to this blog, read earlier posts if you are so inclined). House, you became the symbol of my family waiting for my return, with my loved ones living within your warm walls. Along with my family and friends from "home" (shout out to NJ, VA, MD, you know who you are!!!), you also symbolized the roots keeping me grounded, holding my heart for safekeeping until I could come home.

Last year, when D came to visit me, he made another bold announcement - one of support for what I was doing, and a leap of faith for our future. He announced that he was no longer content to stay at home, minding you, House, while I was off experiencing the world without him. he was growing to resent you, House, representing a way of life we no longer had to follow. He wanted to join in the experiences, and wanted the opportunity for him to grow like I have. He wanted me to start looking for longer term opportunities; we would sell you, House, and travel together. You see, House, we outgrew you. Not in terms of space, but in terms of dreams and desires. The neighborhood, while we liked our neighbors, no longer felt like HOME. We had learned that home was wherever we were, together.

When I left for Fiji, D spent the time cleaning you up and getting you ready for your next family. House, you deserve a family living in you, appreciating you for what you have, for your location, and the memories you can help store. After 4 months and 2 misses, you have been handed over today to a new family, one with kids ready to move into their new bedrooms, meet their new friends and neighbors, settle into a new school. I know this is right, because as soon as D joined me, I felt like I was home. I am sorry to say, House, but once we realized that both of us had outgrown you, we knew it was time to leave.

I will admit, House, I am also scared. I no longer have you to return to. D is my home, but without you I have no "home base" to return to. D is not worried, and believes we will find a place to stay between contracts. He also believes in the international development path we are embracing. He is excited what this new freedom from mortgage and responsibilities will get us, and the ability to pay off financial obligations faster.

Me? This is why saying goodbye is so bittersweet, House. I am saying goodbye to the past, and to a future that never as. I am excited for this new future path we are on, while still acknowledging the sadness that, while growing smaller, will always have a permanent place in my heart. I am embracing the unknown, I am no longer in a prison of my own making, and I feel alive.

Goodbye, House, and good luck. Enjoy your new family, and may you make beautiful memories together.

Deceit in the workplace

This post is a reflection on what has happened the past few days of work. I am still trying to digest it, and I am using this as a way to process my feelings.

 

I will not go into details, over her actions; I will say this is an edited post and, while the earlier version had details, I have been advised and asked by co-workers to delete the details, and as I respect them I will.
 

My personal feeling is that she seemed to target mostly international staff, and especially those on our team. I have been steaming with anger these past few days. I very rarely get angry, but actually felt like my blood was boiling today. We also found out she had left her previous employer owing many coworkers money; and apparently some national staff had been warned about lending her money. This leads me to ponder - how and why were the international staff targeted? I make the distinction of "international" staff as this is what I am; no matter how much I love a country, culture, and people I work with, I will never be considered a "national" staff until I return to the country I was birthed and raised in.

 

As international staff, we are in a very vulnerable position. We are new in a different country, with different culture, different norms of behavior. We are away from the majority of our friends and loved ones beyond the immediate family who might have traveled with us. We are looking to make friends, to fit in, to learn about our new home. Often our workplace becomes the extended family and friends we left behind, and we depend on our national coworkers to be honest with us, to help us navigate cultural/societal/behavioral clues. We trust them completely, as they help us navigate through setting up a local household and all that entails - opening a local bank account, getting a place of residence and all that involves, finding places to shop, places to eat out, suggestions for what to do socially outside of work, etc.

 

We are trusting of our coworkers, and this makes us vulnerable. We want to see the best in people and celebrate humanity. We view our coworkers as family and friends. We want to fit in, and we want to help others. We also dont want to say no at times and be perceived as cheap, selfish, or a multitude of other negative adjectives in our new country cultural context. So when R deceived us like this, it was not the money that we were pissed about the most - it was the destruction of trust, the being taken advantage of. I feel sorry for my coworkers, who now have to pick up the pieces of the work she left behind.

 

I could barely look at R these past few days. I wondered how she could act the way she did. Did she feel any shame? Any remorse? As more truth came out, and as more lies were spoken in her defense, I can say the answer is no. She has destroyed her career, and I can't mobilize any sympathy or pity. She is very close to her father, and I just want to ask her, how does your father feel about your actions? She gave some empty apologies, but nothing I can believe.

 

The challenge now is to move on. Focus on my work, which I love, and try to keep things moving and meet deadlines. Don't let this one person color my view of Fiji, or doubt my positive feelings towards my coworkers. I know in the international development context, this is not the first time a national has taken advantage of an international, and I am unfortunately certain it will not be the last. However, while hearing stories, this is the first time I have been effected by it personally, and I am feeling crushed over the actions of someone I thought was a friend. All we can do is be cautious while still believing in humanity and the goodness of others.

Samoa here I come!!!

So, here I am at the airport, waiting to fly from Fiji to Samoa for work. I have such conflicted emotions – excited, nervous, anxious, thrilled….. You may ask, why in the world does she have such conflicting emotions? You see, I am a Returned U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer, and I served in Samoa from November 1997 – January 2000. I left Samoa to return to USA on 8 February 2000 (yes, that date stayed in my memory, as one remembers any major life event), and I haven’t been back since. Peace Corps truly is the toughest job you will ever love, and my experience helped shape and define who I am today, and put me on my career path that this blog has been documenting. I left Samoa over 12 years ago after spending 2 years as a teacher trainer for early childhood teachers with the Methodist Church Board of Education (in Samoa, their a various school systems, including government run and different church-related schools). I return to Samoa as early childhood development specialist with UNICEF-Pacific in order to work with the Ministry of Education as they decide how they want to plan for and support early childhood more systematically over the few years. I feel so proud to be going back in this capacity, and so humbled.

So, why all these emotions? I am sitting in the airport tearing up thinking about returning, trying to define the clutching in my stomach – in this nervousness? Excitement? Fear? I am scared to see how the reality of Samoa is now compared to my memories of Samoa then. Have I glorified Samoa in my memory, and what if the reality is worse? What if my village has changed – what if my house is gone, as it has been told to me by a fellow RPCV (who said she heard this rumor)?

I must admit something, another fear. I am scared to run into people that know me, remember me, and I will have no idea who they are, or don’t remember them. I left Samoa with good intentions of staying in touch with people, but that reality never happened. The people I did write to, I never heard back, and over time I didn’t write them. There was no Facebook then, very limited Internet and emails, no cell phones. My husband (we served in Samoa together, already married) has been fortunate enough to have some of his old students find and connect with him on Facebook, but most of the teachers I worked with were older and/or poorer, and I don’t see most of them embracing the Internet easily (or, may not have the luxury of time to spend on Facebook).  So, I have no idea where they are now.  I am desperate to see people I knew, to catch up. I have caught myself running through the little Samoan I still remember, even though my language ability back then was towards the bottom of my group (I suck at learning languages), and I remember even less.

There is also a part of me dreading my return. There are 5 standard questions you are asked in Samoa when you meet someone, and in taxis:

  1. What’s your name?
  2. Where are you from?
  3. What’s your church? (They are very religious, 98.5% Christian, so it isn’t your religion they ask, as they assume everyone is Christian)
  4. How many children do you have?
  5. Are you married?

Now, see how the question about children comes first? It was expected and assumed for women to have children, and having children before marriage was no big deal – in fact, in some ways I was told it was good, since you could prove to your intended that you could give him children. As PCVs, we were not allowed to have children during service; if you got pregnant as a volunteer you were medically separated. My husband and I were very careful and used birth control (I had no idea then that I had infertility; as my husband has said, what a waste of money on all that birth control!). Our local friends and coworkers could never understand why we didn’t have children, why would we use family planning; we were married, we should be having children. The fact that if I got pregnant they would send me home was a concept they could not grasp, nor the fact that I didn’t WANT that to happen. We were newly married, and we wanted to serve before we started a family. My husband was the perfect spouse and every (in certain cultures) woman’s dream; he cooked, did laundry, helped me in every way…. But in Samoans’ eyes, he was “less than” a man, and the fact I wasn’t getting pregnant made it even worse. I had one woman in all seriousness offer me her nephew since my husband “wasn’t working”. No, I did not take them up on the offer, and I find it so ironic now that all this time it was ME who “wasn’t working”. Back then, when asked, “how many children do you have?”, I had the excuse that Peace Corps didn’t let me. This time, I have no excuse. I know I will be asked this question, many times, and I am dreading it. Dreading the looks of pity I know I will get, or more than likely follow up questions delving into my personal life. I want to be an advocate for those with infertility, to stand up proud and show that it is very possible to have a fulfilling, rewarding life without children of your own. It is an uphill battle, though, and I know, regardless of all I have achieved these past 12 years, if/when I do meet those I knew before, they will see I still do not have children, and no matter how happy I am with my life now, the pity in their eyes will be painful.

But I am also excited, thrilled in fact. I can’t wait to see how Apia, the capital, has changed. Since leaving, Samoa has changed which side of the road they drive on (used to on the right, like America; now they drive on the left, like England, New Zealand, Australia). They dropped a day in order to be in the same day as Australia and New Zealand. Even though my house may not be there, I still want to go to my village, if I have time. I want to visit the stores I liked, the places we hung out as PCVs. I wish my husband was coming with me, but he is still in USA and hasn’t joined me yet (once he comes to Fiji, we hope to visit Samoa together). I know I will have very little time, if any, to these things since I have a very busy workweek ahead of me, but I can’t wait to just sit somewhere and hear Samoan spoken around me. A part of me never really left Samoa, it had a huge impact on who I am now, and in a way I feel as if I am going home. Samoa was such a formative experience for me. Just as anyone who has been away from home, or a place that was formative in their life, can understand the mixed emotions one has when you return. I do have mixed emotions. I’m going home.

      This is my first blog post in a very very long time. I am on my way to Fiji! I have a year contract with UNICEF as early childhood development specialist for the Pacific Islands. If you are new to my blogs, then I should tell you I am a former US Peace Corps volunteer who served in Samoa, and I was also fortunate to have had a consultancy in Fiji in 2009 (see earlier posts about that). So, in a way I feel like I am going back home! I am so excited, not only to be returning to Fiji, but for working with UNICEF again - this time as staff, rather than as a consultant. I love UNICEF, and I am really looking forward to learning even more about the agency. While this is only a year contract, I am hoping that my contract will either get extended, or I get hired with UNICEF elsewhere.

*****DISCLOSURE*****

As I haven't written in a while, I should also give my shpeal - all comments written by me are my rambling thoughts, feelings, observations, etc alone, and in no way represent anyone or any organization that I am working with. This blog is for me to share experiences with my family and friends at home, and to help me process what I am experiencing. That said I invite anyone to follow me. I am not a writer, and often blog in stream of consciousness style. I also never read/review my posts before publishing, so please excuse spelling, grammatical, or other errors. Frankly, I'm usually so happy to get these words ouheat my head, the last thing I want to do is re-read them!

***** DISCLOSURE ENDED*******

      Well, now I need to be honest with myself, and with you. You see, I started this blog back in the fall of 2007, when I went on my first consultancy in Pakistan. It was great ways to keep everyone updated, involved, and know that I was safe. Since then, I have added to this blog during consultancies in Cambodia, Fiji, Bangladesh, and Rwanda. However, I never wrote on this blog during the times between contracts, when I was home. Why? Well, at first I thought no one would be interested in what I had to write while home, since I was having such a boring time myself. Why bore anyone else? In addition, though, I was struggling with something that I kept separate from this blog, this life. I was in no place to admit it to myself, much less anyone else. You see I started my consultancy the wrong way. It was a dream opportunity come true, but it also allowed me to run from a reality I didn't want to face. At the time just prior to my first consultancy, I had been working at a local social service agency with at risk families with infants and toddlers. I loved my job, I loved the people I worked with, and I loved the knowledge that I was helping families. Then my world turned upside down. I was diagnosed with infertility. I spent almost 2 years struggling, trying to find out what was wrong, and keep my relationship with my husband going – while all the time feeling like I was drowning, completely lost, with no idea how to find my way back.

      Infertility is isolating. No one wants to talk about it, no one wants to admit it, and no one knows how to support those struggling with it. It is a death without a body, except one’s soul. It’s not like you can take time off work to go “get better”. I thought that I could drown myself in work as a coping mechanism, but even there I was taunted by fate, and the irony of being a child development specialist without a child of her own. I hated the families I worked with. I soon felt imprisoned by life, hating work and desperately unhappy and hating myself – and no idea how to save my marriage. When the consultancy in Pakistan was offered to me, it felt like a lifeline. I tried to get a 3-month leave without pay from work to do the consultancy and work on myself and get my head back on, but it was denied (I did not tell anyone of my personal struggles then, only one person in HR – who was the one who denied my leave). The choice was in front of me – decline the opportunity and continue on in the quicksand that was pulling me under, or take a leap – quit my job for a short 3-month contract and then figure out who I was and what to do with the rest of my life. I leaped – honestly, without caring if I survived the jump or not. One thing I have never admitted on this blog before, and which took me a few years to see, was that I was struggling with depression. I realized, while in Pakistan, that I didn’t care if I was caught by a suicide bomb – it would give D a chance to remarry and maybe have the family with children that I couldn’t give him. Selfish of me, I realize now, but I couldn’t see how to continue living as a shell of myself, and or how I could expect D to stay in this marriage when he wanted a family – children of his own. I have never re-read my posts from while I was there, so I don’t know if these internal struggles bled through onto the blog or not. As I had not “outed” myself with infertility and depression then, I also could not reflect on the thoughts and feelings I was going through – the gift of beginning to find a new purpose for myself through my work, redefining myself so as not to be an empty shell, but deciding on what to fill myself with. This by NO means happened overnight, or even months; it has been a years’ journey. My time in Cambodia was especially hard, as not only had I broken my foot there, but also my Premature Ovarian Failure/Primary Ovarian Insufficiency (POF/POI) had finally been diagnosed and my medications were not correct. A year after Pakistan, and I was suicidal… but I’ve fought back, for my life, for my purpose, for my marriage and love.

This blog covers the time frame of a true journey, but as yet you have only been allowed in to half of it.

      So, why do I address this now? Well, for a while I realized I have been ignoring this blog. Not because I didn’t write, but because I didn’t feel authentic. I tried to start a different blog which dealt with my infertility, but that didn’t feel right either and I abandoned that quickly. So, I decided to return here – my journal of ½ my current life – and merge the two. You see, I am a woman with infertility, childfree by circumstance. “Circumstance”, as I would never have considered ‘not’ having a child, and always wanted one (or two, three max).  I am “childfree”, as I have accepted my life as is, or fate as some would call it, and have learned to see the positives and opportunities available in this new life for myself and my husband. As 90% of women in the world would identify themselves as a ‘mother’ first, I am a “NOT mother” – and this shapes, colors my life. The experiences I have internationally and in development work are different than those experienced by mothers. For me to truly share my experiences here, I have to share who I am. So, here it is…

Hello, my name is Wendy, and I am a woman childfree by circumstance working in international development.

(**sigh** that wasn’t so bad)

      I could probably fill pages and pages from my “infertility” side based on my experiences the past few years, but in a way I can’t do that – I could reflect on them, but I can’t rewrite them, and even now I am a different person than I was a few years ago. A few things, though, have helped me get to the point I am now, and I must give acknowledgements where they are due.

***Ok, it is now 26 June 2012, I am 3 months to the day into my new job, and I am just now revisiting this blog entry. I am sitting on a plane in Vanuatu during a layover to Solomon Islands, my 3rd trip to Honiara so far (I also work with Kiribati and Vanuatu, but have not yet visited – even though I’m sitting on a plane at the airport in Vanuatu, they’re not letting us off!). It has been a great, busy 3 months so far. So, let me try to pick up the thread of this entry and finish it; where was I? Ah yes, acknowledgements during my infertility journey….****

      Pamela Mahoney Tsigdinos - I heard about her book, “Silent Sorority: A Barren Woman Gets Busy, Angry, Lost, and Found” and her blog (http://blog.silentsorority.com/) through my POF network. This was the first book I read that was focused on life after infertility as a family of two, and was not focused on infertility treatments, adoption, and other family-building struggles. It was finally a voice saying, “this is what it is, acceptance can come, and a life you can love can come after acceptance.” In many ways it was the voice in my head, which had been speaking but in a language I could not yet, or would not yet, understand. It takes a great deal of faith (and no, I am not religious) to accept fate, stop struggling against it, let go, and see where life takes you. Rather than trying to seek what I didn’t have, and defining myself by what I was missing, reading this book was my first personal step towards accepting myself as who I was – necessary to do before I could define and redefine myself into a person and life I could be proud of.

      Laura Scott – I heard about Laura’s book, “Two is Enough: A Couple’s Guide to Living Childless by Choice”, as well as The Childless by Choice Project http://www.childlessbychoiceproject.com, through the childfree grapevine. Once I started accepting myself in the context I found myself, I felt the need to actively seek out others. I went through a period in which I had to figure out my relationships with my parenting friends. Some friendships were easier than others to maintain, some were lost and then found again; and some I had to say goodbye to. I found that the friendships that survived were those who respected the distance I needed when I needed it, yet were there when I called. They understood that I was not being a fair-weather friend, or one who only called when I wanted; they understood and respected that this was a matter of mental health for me, and did not take my periods of silence as rejection of them or their children. I became less and less comfortable socializing with parents, as their concerns, topics of conversations, etc centered solely around their children – which makes perfect sense, but unless they are willing and able to hold conversations about other topics as well, then I have nothing to contribute – leaving me feeling ostracized, even if I am in a whole group of people thinking they are accepting of me. I did what new parents do – yet where new parents seek out other new parents to share in the experience, learn new things, and find others to talk about issues relevant to them, I sought out people who were also navigating the life without children. I, however, had a much, much smaller pool of people to find. At first I found other people who were “childless”, but I soon felt overwhelmed by them – here I was, trying to find my peace, and this community I was in was actively seeking ways to change their circumstances, full of discontent. So, I started seeking out those who were childfree by choice – which, for various reasons, made the active choice to not have children. I met people through Meet Up groups, No Kidding groups, and Craigslist. It was so nice to finally meet people who were fun, interesting, could get together at a moment’s notice (no need for coordinating babysitters). It felt great reading Laura’s book and seeing all the benefits of not having children. Talking with those who chose to be childfree was empowering for me, and opened up a way of life that I never thought possible. I became active on a Facebook page, filled with amazing, interesting people, active with a variety of topics of discussion – yes, we ranted about the child-centric society we lived in and the biases we faced, but we also served to encourage each other, celebrate each other successes, and validate each others’ choices. I became most active in this online social group last year, which coincided with my time in Rwanda. During this time I also had the amazing opportunity to have Laura as my “coach”, during which time we explored what it would look like to accept my life completely as it was. To recognize the feelings of hurt, loss, death, inadequacy, not feeling a woman, and all those other feelings associated with infertility – to recognize them, to respect them, and learn to put them aside so their hold over me decreased (not ignore them or pretend they aren’t there, as they are now rooted as a part of me, like my bones and blood, and contribute to who I am today). Laura, as my coach, helped me explore what this new life could look like and what the future could bring.

      I already mentioned that I was going through this “coaching” last year while I was in Rwanda for 7 months. During this time, it was the first experience in which I was completely open about my infertility. Especially in the developing world context, people asking about your personal life surround you, and asking about your children  - the assumption being that you have children – is a key component of “getting to know you” conversation. In Pakistan, Cambodia, Fiji, and Bangladesh, I would always reply “not yet”; very rarely I would use my cats as “children” – saying I have 4, and giving their ages – when I didn’t have the fight in me to deal with questions about why I didn’t have children yet, what I should be doing, or having my professional qualifications questioned since I wasn’t a mother. In Rwanda, however, I started exploring what it would mean to be true to myself. I explored how to deal with, react, and respond to comments such as “oh, not yet” or “I’ll pray for you” when one learned about my infertility. I decided to buck the assumption that I must have children. I started seeing myself as an advocate for women (hey, and men too) without children; we could be valuable contributors to society without having our own children, and we did not need anyone’s prayers, pity, or shame placed on us. I decided to be a strong woman who happened to not have children. It was liberating, and I felt like I was finally being myself. At the same time, I felt like I was more authentic with my coworkers, and hopefully shared with them a way of life that they had never thought about – or at least not in a positive way.

      Another person and situation that really helped me clarify where I’ve been in this infertility journey, where I am, and where I want to go, was working with Marni Rosner as part of her dissertation study for her PhD in Social Work (Rosner, Marni, "Recovery From Traumatic Loss: A Study Of Women Living Without Children After Infertility" (2012). Doctorate in Social Work (DSW) Dissertations. Paper 20. http://www.upenn.edu/pennnews/news/penn-researcher-looks-infertility-s-impact-women). Pamela sent a shout-out for childfree by circumstance women willing to be interviewed about our experiences, and I contacted Marni. What followed was a really interesting opportunity that was ultimately very fulfilling. I was in Rwanda at the time, so rather than conduct a phone interview we entered into a months-long email conversation. She would email me a few questions, I would reply, she would send me more questions, and so on. I want to try and explain how worthwhile this experience was for me. You see, if we had just had a phone interview, we maybe would have been in communication for an hour, maybe 2 hours, and then the interview would have ended. Instead, when I opened her email with questions I had the time to ponder what she was really asking me, and reflect on how to reply. The overall process was angering, depressing, moving, enlightening, empowering for me. There were some emails with questions that I blatantly ignored in my inbox, because the questions brought up feelings I didn’t want to deal with – I realized, though, that my resistance to certain questions begged me to reflect more on my responses rather than to just say any answer to move on. If we had done a simple phone conversation, I would never have had the time to do this conscious reflection. I found I admitted to things and feelings that I had never done before, and it was like recognizing and peeling off another layer of dead skin to find more regrowth underneath (which I didn’t know was there). In some ways the process was frustrating, as Marni, in her role as researcher, was acknowledging my replies and asking follow-up questions without engaging in a dialogue around my replies – but it was fortunate that my coaching relationship with Laura was going on at the same time, so I could take some unresolved issues brought up through Marni’s questions and talk them out with Laura.

So, how does all this relate to my work in development? My travels, what I have written here?

      Well, I am entering into a new phase in my international work. For the past 4+ years I have been doing the short-term consulting thing, going 3,4, even 7 months at a time apart from D. Whether consciously or subconsciously, we were both trying to determine who we now were, what we wanted to do, what we wanted out of life, and what family and marriage meant to us. It took time, it took work, it took honesty and bravery to look at issues like divorce for us to agree that we could re-invent our relationship and re-engage in discussions for our future. We are now at a point where D is 100% enrolled in joining me in the international realm and redefining “family” into our current “family of 2”. This gives me the freedom now to move beyond the short-term consulting to longer-term, more fulfilling postings in which I can settle in somewhere and dig my teeth into projects – how exciting! And, with D along with me for the ride, who can imagine what adventures await us!

      So, looking back at my earlier posts, I wonder if my earlier struggles were evident. I don’t know; I can’t revisit those posts right now. All I know is, Over the past year I have become much more open to being childfree by circumstance not only for advocacy, but also to find “members of my tribe”. There was a consultant here in Fiji for a month, “B”, and when we both realized we were childfree – wow! What excitement! I had such great fun and fantastic conversations with her, in ways that I never would have had if I didn’t know we shared such commonalities.

      So, here I am now, 3 months into my 1-year contract in Fiji. Praying my contract is extended, and open to future opportunities if it is not. Anxiously awaiting my husband’s arrival to join in this next stage of adventure, and 2 of our 4 cats (thanks so so so much to my friend L, who is fostering our other 2 cats!).

Am I happy? Yup. It took a while to get to this stage, but what is life if it isn’t a trip?

Don't inactivate me!!!

Wow, I just got a message from Live Journal threatening to deactivate me if I didn't post. I didn't realize I haven't posted in so long!

So much has happened..... I returned home from Rwanda the end of September at the end of my contract. Now, 4 months later after returning home, what are the main things I remember from Rwanda 4 months later? Hiking to see the Hirwa Mountain Gorilla family, with baby twins, and the huge silverback! The amazing people I met and worked with. The beautiful landscapes. The progress in reconciliation from the Genocide. The communities I met and their commitment to their children. Colobus monkeys; Akagera National Park. The order of Kigali; the insane moto drivers. The friends I made; the routines I got used to. Trying my first hookah; 2nd degree burn on my leg from a moto exhaust pipe. My husband coming to visit me for 2 weeks! I loved the work I did and the people I worked with. I could say so much more.....

Now that I am home, I miss Rwanda. I hope I get the opportunity to return someday. However, I am getting ready for a new adventure, a new contract. More to come! 

March-April in Kigali

Yet again, I’m amazed at how much time has passed since I last posted a blog entry. It’s been busy, and, sadly, I must report that my trusty laptop appears to be dying. I might be able to resurrect it, but it will have to wait until I get home. My laptop is 2 years old and uses the Windows Vista program. The past few weeks, it started shutting down before it finished booting up, and when it did boot up the keyboard stopped working, and the mouse would highlight and open everything in a folder rather than the 1 item you wanted. It has also been getting progressively slower, and every time I opened ITunes, it reverted to an older ‘catalogue’. I managed to find a 500GB HDD and moved as much from my laptop onto it as I could, with a few fatalities – I lost all my videos/movies I had brought with me! (sob!!!! Boredom, here I come!) Plus, I can’t seem to bring over the Rosetta Stone-French (which I invested in to learn French while I am here) onto my HDD so I could use it on another laptop. I have the original program disks at home, but I really want it on my HDD so I can use it here! At least I have a work laptop that I can bring home on weekends to use, but weekdays may be sans computer (less hassle, I could bring it home but this work laptop is huge and heavy).

Lots happened these past few weeks; including: field visits; work; cultural items of interest, including a wedding; friendships and things to do; and Genocide. I have also missed a few life-cycle occasions at home, which has me upset.

Work

I’ve been at work now for 6 weeks, and in some ways it feels as if I just arrived, and in other ways it feels as if I’ve been here a year. I am loving my work. The team I work with is fantastic, and P, my Project Coordinator who has taken on additional budgeting responsibilities, is dedicated and amazing – and funny as hell! Seriously, I share an office with P, G, the Child Protection Manager, and L, the Construction Officer, as well as F, the consultant – and half the time we’re laughing in the office.

I’ve had the opportunity to participate in some study visits (which I’ll discuss later) and some meetings where I could advocate for ECCD. One was attending MINEDUC’s Girls Education Policy Workshop, which is a policy striving to increase girls’ participation – and completion - in education. It was amazing hearing the conversations about things we take advantage of at home; challenges include: not enough facilities for the girls to have separate toilets; once girls reach puberty, they often stay at home because there are not enough toilet facilities or sanitary items to support them being at school; lack of sex education and high teen pregnancy rates means girls drop out if they get pregnant; high workloads at home (caring for older siblings, house work, etc) affect homework and grades; etc. It was interesting hearing all these grown men talking so openly about menstruation issues that girls face.

Another event I attended was a MINEDUC-sponsored forum event on public-private partnerships, and how business can support and work with education. I mentioned ECCD as an area that needs support for growth, not only regarding salaries/incentives for teachers but also learning materials to support quality. I am hoping to get some plans in place, or at least conversations started, before I leave here.

I conducted my first training, which I decided would be more exploratory than “training” per say. I wanted staff to get an idea of what quality ECCD could look like, so I used pictures and video of ECCD programs I had evaluated in Pakistan, Fiji, and Bangladesh. I turned out to be a wonderful way for them to identify and determine what possibilities there are to improve and further their ECCD activities, and I hope I can provide them with enough training and support, and encourage them to take a more active role in supporting the quality of the program (currently focus is on community initiatives, advocacy and parent involvement, construction/rehabilitation of centers, and linking to health/nutrition/sanitation/child protection aspects). It was great seeing them realize not only what ECCD methodology can look like, but how it could be implemented and how it supports learning beyond ABCs/123s.

It feels so good to be actually working WITH a program instead of just coming in, evaluating, giving recommendations, and leaving.


Field Visits

I mentioned that I went on some field visits; one so far was to visit our sites in Gicumbi District up north, but the rest were through study visits set up by RENCP – Rwanda Education NGO Coordination Platform. As Save the Children staff, I am getting involved with this organization to raise awareness and advocate for ECCD issues within the grander education discussions. I participated in a study visit between us and Plan International; they visited our ECCD programs in the north and we visited their ECCD programs in the east. While in the north, we were so close to the border with Uganda we ate at a restaurant for lunch in “no man’s land” – between the two borders. Glad I had my passport with me; it was checked twice.

I also visited the south twice for study visits; once was to visit Concern Worldwide’s parent-teacher committee workshop and a primary school to talk with the PTC. The second time was to visit a local ECCD program which is seeking to partner with Save the Children; we could see the mountains of Burundi across the valley.

Seeing how isolated some of these communities are is amazing. Mud bricks squares for homes with tin roofs, no electricity, community latrines in the village. The government is trying to get everyone to stop using thatched roofs and use tin instead; while in the east we saw one single mother with 4 kids who’s house was torn down since it was thatch, but she couldn’t afford to build a new house – so she was living with her kids under a mosquito net which was spread across 2 bushes. Makes me feel extremely guilty over all the possessions I have at home, which more and more are feeling senseless.

So far, ECCD is being seen as a mini-primary school – with empty rooms save for rows of chairs or benches, which these little ones sit in for 3 hours (if they are lucky enough to have chairs or benches to sit; otherwise, they sit on the dirt floors). Rwanda ECCD has a far way to go, but so much potential!

Cultural Items of Interest, including a Wedding

Umuganda - takes place every last Sat of the month. Rwandans (and expats as well) are supposed to do public works - road constructions etc. for free as part of their support to their community. This is supposed to be voluntarily...but in reality people are obliged to do it. If one does not want to do it, better stay at home otherwise you may be forced to attend. Shops are also closed until midday on this day.

Wedding – April 3rd was the wedding of C, one of SC’s drivers. The whole office went, and it was interesting. The wedding started 2 hours late, but that appears to be normal. It started in the church, and was a simple prayer and blessing, with sermon. It was also 2 couples at the same time, which was a little weird; we had to make sure to sit on the correct side! After, we went to the cultural ceremony, which was interesting, and contained some very cool symbolic gestures, such as:
• The fathers announced how a “dowry” was presented and given (a cow, by the groom’s father to the bride’s)
• The wedding couple had to demonstrate how they would receive guests in their new home, so their wedding party passed out first sodas to the families and then guests, and then food (the couple is Seventh Day Adventists, so no meat and no alcohol).
• The couple was given a plow to bless their harvests.
• There was a banana tree which had been cut and brought into the room; at one point, the bride and groom fed each other a banana. (I can’t remember the symbolism, but I think it had to do with a fruitful marriage? Caring for each other? Meeting each other’s needs? I can’t remember).
I sat next to G and translated the entire wedding; he is a great translator, and gives almost sentence by sentence translation (I’ve had other cases where I only get a summary of what’s been said, and I always appreciate when someone who is translating provides me with as much detail as possible).

Friendships, Things to Do

So I have to admit, Kigali is a pretty boring place. After Bangladesh, which was full of cultural activities and things to do (museums, plays, concerts, window shopping, etc), I am having a hard time finding things to do, especially on the weekends. Aside from a few Genocide memorials and museums, there are no cultural activities to do. There is one restaurant, Heaven, which shows a movie almost every Saturday, but most of them are miss-able. There are a few swimming pools, but I haven’t been to any yet because I’ve heard they are overrun with expat families and kids. There is one restaurant that does a Monday night quiz-night which is mostly attended by expats, but I haven’t gone yet, mainly because I wanted to get more comfortable driving stick shift at night before going. There are a few sports, but as anyone who knows me knows, I don’t do sports. There are a few restaurants and coffee shops which have Wi-Fi, so on weekends you can find many people there with laptops – not exactly conducive for social interactions.

I have made friends with all my coworkers, but almost all have families and don’t seem to socialize outside of the office since they are focused on their families. I have made friends with a consultant with Save the Children, F, who I really enjoy spending time with and we seem to have a lot in common, but she’s leaving in 2 weeks. Most of the things I have done over the weekends have been with her – walking around Kigali; shopping; pizza; exploring a newly opened spa; dinner – and she’s been great in showing me more local markets than the few expensive ones I was told about. I am actually pretty bummed she’s leaving. She’s vegetarian, and during one lunch at a new restaurant she hadn’t been before, she ordered a Caesar salad – one would assume it would be vegetarian, right? After a long wait, it comes out – 1 small lettuce leaf, with a fried slice of bread on top – with huge chunks of bacon on that! The waiter said, “The chef says it’s vegetarian”, and then tried to tell F how bacon is vegetarian. Uh, NO. Gotta love him for trying, though.

There is a yahoo group called kigalilife which I joined, which I thought would be a network for people to make plans, get together, and do things. Unfortunately, it seems to mainly be people posting things to sell or trying to buy, and not the social connection I was hoping for. I did, however, notice someone post a comment about Purim, so I contacted her. Turns out J, a Fulbright Scholar, is here with her partner and 2 children. I was invited to her place for dinner 2 nights ago, and they hosted a 1st night Passover Seder which I attended. They are also great people, and while unfortunately they leave in June I hope to get together again with them soon, maybe do some exploring. What was great about the Pesach Seder was that it was the 4 of them, me, and an Israeli who contacted J and joined us. They attempted to make matzoh, which, honestly saying, was awful and hard as a rock, and made me wish for the boxed stuff back home (don’t worry, I am not saying anything the family themselves were saying!). Luckily, we all got a great laugh, especially when it was noticed that one of the pieces was shaped as the African continent! The Israeli was nice and brought a huge can of fruits in jam – unfortunately, when it was opened, we realized it was fruit jam – at 6 lbs. can of fruit jam! Again, some good laughs.

Now that I have gotten more comfortable with driving stick shift (actually, it is fun!), I think I’ll try a quiz night soon. I’d also love to take a day or weekend trip outside of Kigali, but I’d feel more comfortable the first time going with someone since I’ll be driving and not taking public transport. I am also thinking of posting something to kigalilife to see if anyone wants to get together and do something; what, I don’t know. But while I am enjoying having a house to spread out in and have control over my meal choices, this is the downside of not living in a hotel when traveling – there is little way for me to meet people since there is no common dining room to go to, or meet around the hotel premises.

Genocide

7th April marked Genocide Memorial Day, which commemorates the start of the 1994 Genocide between Tutsis and Hutus. An estimated 800,000 (figures run from 500,000 to 1 million) were killed in 100 days. The following 30 days is a very solemn time, with ongoing memorials and marches. The first week, no music is allowed in public places, and the color purple is symbolic of the genocide – so I saw people wearing purple pieces of fabric during marches, but not at other times. It is now illegal to reference tribal affiliations, and there is a strong push in all aspects of government and education for reconciliation. I am impressed with how far they have come as a country, though I am concerned that, since there is such a push to reconcile and move on, that underlying issues that caused the genocide in the first place might not be addressed in a way that people can truly move on (as opposed to skimming the surface). In fact, during the first week, the local media was overwhelmed with Genocide commemoration songs, videos, poems, etc. F attended the day of commemoration last year, and said it was a full day into the night at the Kigali Stadium of remembrances – some which were so vivid that people were fainting, going into hysterics in the crowd. Many of my co-workers speak of living in Uganda or Burundi, but won’t discuss their time as refugees, and there is no way to discuss how the Genocide might have affected them personally. To think it was just 17 years ago. Such cruelty then, yet such dedication to change and improve now.

By the way, the movie Hotel Rwanda is NOT liked here, and almost reviled. While there is commitment to move on, there is still a great deal of suspicion related to those who survived, especially in the situation of the hotel owner as depicted in the movie. I was told this from F when I mentioned the movie, who heard this from a Rwandan friend; but there is no way for me to ask for more details.


Other Items

As I mentioned in a previous post, don’t bring anything less than $100 USD bill currency, and nothing older than printed in the year 2006. Now, I can add – don’t bother to bring traveler’s checks. In fact, the more I travel, the more I find them worthless the places I go; hardly anyone takes them for payment, and you can’t find anyone who will exchange them for cash – if you do, the exchange rate is robbery. I was caught one weekend with NO money (finished my Rwandan francs, no US currency to exchange, and traveler’s checks which – after 3 hours and 6 banks – no one would convert). What a hassle. I even went to the US Embassy to see if they could help me exchange a traveler’s check, or let me sign it over to someone there and have them give me cash in return – got no help.

Life Cycle Events

So, this has been a really rough month for me, being away from my family and friends. This is my 7th country I have worked in, and during the time away from home, I have missed many friends’ weddings, the death of a great-aunt, my grandfather being moved to a nursing home and my grandparents’ house sold as my grandmother moved to a condo closer to the nursing home. I have missed the birth of my husband’s nephew. But, all these events have been spread across 14 years, and I dealt with them.

In the six weeks I have been in Rwanda so far, I have missed the wedding of a dear friend of mine, heard that my last remaining grandparent, my grandmother, was moved to a nursing home, and learned yesterday of the death of my mother’s best friend for 25+ years and who was like an aunt to me. Why is this so difficult for me? I have dealt with these same issues before, but maybe them happening all at once, in such a short span of time, makes it that much more difficult. Yes, I am homesick. I love it here, but the boredom, added to the limited number of social friends I have made so far, means I have too much time on my hands and not enough activities to keep me busy.

Sure, I could spend more time on work, but that wouldn’t be fun. I could try to exercise and maybe lose weight, which would be good for me, but I still find the heat during the day uncomfortable. I know I have to find something soon to do with my free time.

Computer Problems

I think another reason I’ve been having problems this past month is because my personal laptop spent almost 3 weeks wigging out and is now out of commission. I can barely use it. I finally spent $100 USD and bought a 500GB HDD and moved as much from my laptop to the HDD as I could, but in the process I lost all the videos I had downloaded and brought with me, plus I can’t seem to use my Rosetta Stone French from the HDD. I was really hoping to learn some French while here. It’s been hard getting in touch with people during these computer problems. I am now bringing home my work laptop on weekends, but I hate the idea of being responsible for it, and it is huge. I really wish I could buy a new laptop, even a netbook since I have my HDD to store most things on it. Without my own laptop, I feel so disconnected.

I'm in Rwanda!!!

I am writing this as I wait for my plane to leave the gate. Yup, on my way to a new contract! This is the fastest time between contracts I’ve had yet. I found out 3 weeks ago that I was offered the position of ECCD Program Manager, maternity cover, for Save the Children-UK Rwanda program. That’s right, Rwanda for 6.5 months!

So I am upset. I did something completely stupid and now I am paying for it. At Dulles airport, I was overweight for my checked bags, so I grabbed some things and reshuffled between bags, plus threw a few things into my carryon. I didn’t realize until Brussels airport that one of the things I threw into my carryon had my Swiss army knife in it (though, I don’t know what to say about Dulles letting it through – oops?). At Brussels my knife was confiscated. I begged them if I could have it bagged like it was a duty free purchase and I’d pick it up when I landed in Kigali, but no go. So, I am sans my knife. It was one of the mega-Swiss knives that had everything under the sun, and one of two that Dave and I got as a wedding gift for Peace Corps. My knife, which has been with me for 14 years; it has travelled with me to every single country that I worked in, 6 countries. My knife. I am so upset. I had no idea how attached I was to it, and I am so bummed that it is gone.

I am in my second week in Rwanda. My first week was mostly spent doing HR stuff, and meeting with Elisa, who I am replacing (yes, another Elisa, also Italian; not the same as I met in Bangladesh, though). Most of the week was busy trying to get over jet lag and learn the overview of the program. The second week was mostly speant reading all the documents, reports, manuals, etc.

Here are some highlights and points of interest (at least to me!):

• Driving –
I learned how to drive when I was 17, many years ago (I won’t say how many since I don’t want to date myself, but let’s just say if I had a kid at that age it would be in college). However, I learned how to drive automatic. My parents always had automatic. I have always had an automatic. Aside from a brief period of time, my husband has mostly driven automatic. What vehicles are available in Rwanda? Yup, manual. And what else is Rwanda called? “Land of a Thousand Hills.” Here I am, learning how to drive manual in a foreign country, with very confusing roads, on hills, lots and lots of hills.

So, how am I doing? Well, my first driving lesson was last Friday (11th March). Cyprien, one of our drivers, took me out to do a driving lesson/test. There are 4 cars for Save the Children, and he used the largest one – a huge SUV – to see how I would handle it. I stalled 3 times. Thankfully he was there to talk me through it. I also had a near miss; I was driving and was ½ way through an intersection which I had the right of way; a car coming towards me was passing the other car in his lane so I was maneuvering so he wouldn’t hit me while passing. Well, a car was at the intersection perpendicular to our road, stopped, waiting to merge, when another car came around from behind him and went to pass and drive into the intersection. I sped up to move out of everyone’s way (which I did). Afterwards, Cyprien told me that the car which passed the stopped car to go into the intersection was the president’s wife, and I was supposed to stop. The car was unmarked; how was I supposed to know? Oops.

Sunday I moved into my house (more on that later), and found the car that would be mine to use – a 1997 Rav4. I thought it would be easier to drive, but the clutch is really temperamental and when I took the car to buy some groceries for the house I kept stalling. Monday was my first day driving to work and from my house. A 15 minute, 7 km drive turned into a 1.5 hour, 22 km drive when first I got lost in the city; tried to turn around and ended up driving all the way back to my house; then trying a different way to the office – and stalling all along the way. Did I say how confusing the roads are, winding around the hills? There is no straight road. I was a nervous wreck by the time I got to the office! Tuesday and Wednesday Maurice, our other staff driver, came with me to and from home and gave me driving tips along the way. I stalled a few times, but each day I improved. Thursday I drove to and from home-office with no problem at all!

I swear I feel like I am 17 again.

• Surprise! –
Last Friday while sitting at breakfast at the hotel, I look up – and there is Jamshed, who was part of my evaluation team in Pakistan 3.5 years ago!!!! I knew he was coming to work on a UNICEF consultancy, but I didn’t know when or where. It was so nice to see him! We shared a few meals at the hotel together before I moved to my house (and I think he has moved to a place as well). He is now a grandfather twice, his nephew who had been kidnapped is back in university after taking some time off, and his younger 2 daughters are in university – all four daughters are doctors or studying to be! He is such a proud papa. I hope to get together with him more while we are both here!

• Money –
So, an odd point of information to know if you ever travel to Rwanda – US dollars is one of the preferred currencies to change to Rwandan Francs. Pay close attention to the bills you bring in country. $100 bills pay more in the exchange compared to $50 and $20 bills (anything less than $20, don’t bother). Another important note – check the date of the bills! $100 bills dated after 2006, at the time of this writing, gets an exchange rate of 600. However, $100 bills dated BEFORE 2006 only pays an exchange rate of 580. Yes, the older the bill is, the less you can exchange it for. Why one or two years make a difference, I don’t know, but how annoying.

• Saturday, my first real day off since arriving –
The day before I moved from the hotel to my house was my first day off since arriving in country. I took a moto into town to a shopping area to get lunch. I was sitting there and a group of 6 walked in – I just knew they were Peace Corps volunteers. I said hi, they invited me to join them, and we sat for a few hours talking. Most of them are in Rwanda as secondary school English and Science teachers, which another group is health. Where I met them was at a really nice café and coffee bar called Bourbon Coffeehouse, and turns out there is another one near my house; I think I’ll be hanging out there often (a nice place to go with a book or laptop other than my house).

One thing I notices about Kigali is that is very clean (at least the parts I have seen). Also, the moto taxies are very well organized; they all have green vests so you can identify them, and not only are the drivers wearing helmets, but there are helmets for the passenger as well! Very impressive.
So there is a consultant from England working with Save the Children, she is only here for another month, but she is really fun. Saturday she invited me to join her and her housemates to a restaurant which shows movies Saturday nights. It’s expensive, but it was nice, and we saw “Conviction” (those FBI warnings to not show movies for profit? Yeah, right!). I wonder what future showings will be; of course, I have no idea how to get back there by myself yet!

• House –
Last Sunday the 13th I moved in Elisa’s house after she left for home (Italy). She lives in a neighborhood 15-20 minutes from Kigali city “central”, which is considered “far away”. It is also in a very nice neighborhood. My house, which is gated, is like a split-level. When you go in the front door, to the right is a bathroom and storage room; to the left is a bedroom. Directly in front of the door are stairs going up and down. Go up, and there is a bathroom and 2 bedrooms. Go down, and you have the kitchen and an open room for both the living and “dining” room. The floor is tile. The kitchen is so small the fridge is in the dining room. The house has a generator for when power is out, and a water pump to help the water to get to the upper bathroom. I have a day and night guard, and the day guard also does a little gardening once a week. I have also maintained Elisa’s maid, who comes once a week on Saturday to do laundry and clean; when Elisa returns, the maid will stay on and become the baby’s nanny. I wish I could also find a cook! I feel weird with a guard and weekly maid, but 1.) I am proving employment; 2.) the safety of the house and my belongings are increased with a guard; and 3.) maintaining the employment of Elisa’s staff makes sure she and her husband don’t lose them to another job.

When I first moved into the house, I realized that none of my adapter plugs fit the sockets in the walls. It took me a few days, but I was able to find some. Whew!!!

• Trips so far –
Last Friday was the closing ceremony of a training which Save the Children facilitated, so we went to participate in the speeches and certificates (ok, I sat there and listened, but it was worth it). It was 2 hours north of Kigali in the north-west region, close to the volcano region and in the mountains near where the gorillas live. It was absolutely beautiful. However, the drive is a test in faith, with a one-lane each way road winding up through the mountains – with some areas where the road is just a few inches from a cliff. We passed 2 overturned trucks. I better get a lot better driving manual if I ever plan to do that drive myself!

Today Pierre (my coworker) and I joined a UNICEF consultant and staff from Plan International to go to the eastern region and visit some of Plan’s ECCD programs as part of a study tour. In two weeks Save the Children will bring them to visit some of Save’s programs in the north. I hope in the next 2 weeks to visit some of Save’s programs to see how caregivers are implementing ECCD, so I can start planning my work.

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Tomorrow, Saturday, is my first full “off” day at the house. I have no idea what I will do yet. I guess I’ll figure that out tomorrow when I wake up!

(And, I must say, my prayers and thoughts are with Japan and those who are trying to find out about loved ones.)

November - December in Bangladesh

I just realized that I haven’t written about the rest of my time in Bangladesh, and I have now been home for 1.5 months! At first I was overcome with jet lag for 2 weeks as I tried to get back on my home schedule and time zone, and then with the holidays and New Year…. well , I just let time get away from me.

So, I am reviewing my notes that I kept while there, and seeing what I can salvage to try and write this blog entry (note to self, don’t let so much time pass between returning home and blogging!). Unfortunately, this means that I am sure I had some experiences (Amazing! Awe-inspiring!), which I don’t remember enough to write here (no, not because they were in any way alcohol-impacted) and which you will no doubt feel the significant loss of hearing about those moments.

So to sum up my November in Bangladesh: work. And I mean, WORK. I will not go into details, but this is the month that I focused on writing my report, and coming up with information to share with the Ministry to incorporate into their 5 year strategic plan. Unfortunately, there was another American (as yet unnamed in this blog) who was there in the capacity to provide overall oversight and “the big picture”. This person barely gave me the time of day the entire time I was there and never gave me any feedback when I would give information to this person, and yet this person complained about me. If S/he had only given me the time of day on the –multiple- times I tried to connect with him/her, s/he would have received the information s/he complained that I didn’t give him/her. Alas, shit rolls downhill, and I was downhill of this person. Luckily, I was able to competently defend myself to the person who brought these comments to my attention, as well as my communication logs with dates of emails/text messages I had made to the complainant; I addition, I met with the complainant and went through the information s/he requested (and which I had previously sent to him/her) – at which time s/he realized I knew what I was talking about, and sent an email to the person s/he had talked to about me. No matter where you go, there is no escaping office politics!!! But, I refused to let this get me down, or have a negative impact on my time in Bangladesh. On November 30th, I handed in my complete first draft of my report to wait for feedback and revision.

I had originally scheduled myself to fly home Dec 6th, giving myself a week in Bangladesh to play tourist for a little. However, I found out that something was occurring in Dhaka, Bangladesh from Dec 7-9 which was professionally and personally exciting- the FIRST EVER South Asia Regional Early Childhood Conference! I switched my flight so I could attend the conference, which also gave me two extra “tourist” days. Since I was no longer leaving on the 6th, I now had a few days in Dhaka to relax, and then 4 days to schedule a tour – I chose a cruise tour of the Sundarban National Forest. I returned to Dhaka in time for the conference the next day, and then I had one day left in Dhaka before leaving for home! This is what I packed into my last 2 weeks in Bangladesh…..

Friday – Friend and Family Time!!! I became really good friends with my UNICEF co-worker Apnan, and I was invited to Apnan’s house Friday afternoon after prayers. I had to rent a car to get to her house on the other side of the city, so I decided to take advantage of having my own car and go visit the Buddhist monastery in the city first. It took a while to find it so I didn’t have much time to look around the grounds, but there was a nice pool with one huge Buddha statue standing at one end of the pool, and two sitting Buddha statues at the other end. A monk greeted me, and I asked if I could just sit in their meditation room for a few minutes. They had cushions to sit on in a multipurpose-type (otherwise empty) room, where one end had about 5 Buddha statues. It was nice to just sit quietly in the silence.

I left and went straight to Apnan’s house. She lives in the Old Dhaka section, which looks nothing like Central Dhaka, which is the business section, or where I lived, the north section of Dhaka where the embassies, most hotels, and expensive retail were located. The buildings in Old Dhaka are thin and long, and *very* close together. The streets are so narrow only one car can barely drive down the streets, and they are full of turns. Apnan’s flat is on the third floor, and an uncle lives on the floor below. She has one 9-year-old daughter, and the walls and door of her room is covered with pictures of Disney princesses, Hannah Montana, and a boy I didn’t recognize. Lunch was simple rice and chicken curry, and then, since I had the taxi with me (I rented it for the whole day), I took Apnan, her daughter, and husband to Ahsan Manzil, aka Pink Palace, the old home of the provincial governor – which has since been turned into a museum. I’m glad her husband went with us, because it was such a mob of men outside to buy entrance tickets, we wouldn’t have been able to get close enough to buy them without him shouldering his way to the front. Unfortunately, he then stayed outside while Apnan, her daughter, and I went into the museum. It was so much fun! This was Apnan’s first experience seeing how foreigners draw so much attention, and she thought it was hilarious. I was like a walking exhibit, with everyone watching and following us as we walked through the rooms; there was always a group surrounding us and listening in on our conversations. We even had one boy (I’d say we was middle school age?) who followed us the entire time to listen to us and look at the exhibits we were looking at, even to our car when we were ready to leave! Again, glad Apnan’s husband was with us. I have to say, though, what made it a great experience was going with Apnan’s daughter. Her favorite subject is history, and they had never been to a museum before. Her enthusiasm and excitement were such a joy to see, and I was so pleased to be able to have taken them there.

After the museum, we went to Shankharia Bazaar, aka Hindu Street. This was one shopping bazaar in the Hindu district that was really one street that was so narrow not even a car could go through. It seemed that most stores sold the same things, though, so we didn’t stay long. We went back to Apnan’s house and had dinner; overall, it was a great day!!!!

Saturday – on Saturday I went with Elisa and Massimo to Sonargaon, which was the capital of the ancient kingdom ruled by Isa Khan of Bengal. It is considered one of the first and oldest capitals of Bengal. It was like stepping back in time into a ghost town, walking down the street with these old, abandoned buildings that were beautiful in their crumbling state; they must have been amazing during the height of their day. I had an odd thing happen; there was a cow on the street, and it walked up to me; next thing I know she is licking my hand! I pet it on the head and then went to walk away – she followed me and kept bumping my hand with her head! I was standing there petting a cow on the head when it wasn’t licking my hand. A first!

There were also 2 museums which we walked around, one being an old palace which was a beautiful shade of pink and white, with a small lake just outside and on beautiful grounds. Interestingly, we were – again – the only foreigners there, but there were many locals. It was not as bad as the museum with Apnan, but we were still followed and listened to.

After the weekend I spent my last work week finishing up my report. My last day was Nov. 30th, but another hartal was called (protest) and the office was closed. So, I made the 29th be my last office day, and worked from the hotel on the 30th and emailed my report in. It was such a relief to have this project over! Now I could spend the rest of my time in Bangladesh just “being”.

Shopping!!! Due to the insane congestion, traffic, electricity demands, etc, stores in different areas of the city rotated when they were open and closed – so some would be closed Friday, some Saturday, some Sunday, and some Monday. Tuesdays-Thursdays stores were pretty much guaranteed to be open. I never quite got the hang of the schedule, though, so very often I would take a rickshaw to a shop to find out it was closed. Oh well. I went to the newest mall in the city, Bashundhara City Mall – which turned out to be this humongous, 8-storey indoor mall. I wandered around the first floor a little and then decided I would go up to the first floor and then window shop my way down. I found elevators against the back wall and got in…. I don’t know if there was some sort of cultural thing going on (as in, these are the male elevators), but I was the only female in a large group of men getting on and off these elevators all the way up to the top floor. The top floor turned out to be the food stalls, and each stall I passed I was yelled at to come and try the food. I passed one chicken stall, and since they didn’t yell to me I went to them, thanked them for not yelling to me, and bought my lunch from them (and got sick about 2 hours later, but that’s a different matter). As I window shopped each floor my way down, I realized that the layout was very similar to the outside market stalls (small rows of stalls lined up in groups of 5-8, with short, dark alleys between rows of stalls, though being inside the rows of stalls were mostly straight rather than twisting all around). Stalls were clustered, for example one floor had the fabrics and tailors, 2-3 floors had the ready-made clothing, one floor had the gold jewelry and electronics, one floor had the bootleg DVDs/music and one floor was miscellaneous – and miscellaneous in this context is the truest definition of the word. It was a fun experience, but there was nothing for me to buy (except some stunning jewelry which I couldn’t afford) and I had sensory overload by the time I left. I found some other shops which had gift items more appropriate for what I was looking for.

Sundarban Mangrove National Forest – I had a few days before the conference, and I still hadn’t really seen much of Bangladesh outside of Dhaka. I had just enough time to go on a tour of the Sundarban Mangrove National Forest, a UNESCO world heritage site. I took a plane from Dhaka to Kulna, and then boarded the Guide Tours boat (the Bonbibi; http://www.guidetours.com/destinations/sundarban-the-magical-mangrove.html) at Kulna for a 4-day river cruise down the Passur River and some tributaries into the mangroves, around the edge of the Sundarbans at the Bay of Bengal, and then back north to Kulna where I took a plane back to Dhaka in time for the conference to start the next day. The trip was magical. The boat was small; they had room for 12 people but there were only 6 including me – score, got the cabin to myself! I was the only American; there was an Austrian-Swiss couple, an older British man, and 2 Swedish guys. Unfortunately, the Brit had eaten something bad the day before, and was sick for most of the trip. The others spoke English, so when they weren’t speaking to each other in their native languages, we all had a fun time talking to each other. One of the Swedes had a fascination with American politics and culture (in fact, he had a copy of a book by John Locke with him, and was reading it for fun!!!!) and we spent multiple hours talking, especially after dinner. I told him he should just move to America already, since he knew more about our country’s history and politics than most Americans do!

The first day we spent entirely on the boat going down the river towards the Sundarbans. Once we reached the Sundarbans, we would wake up in the morning and take a small row boat down one of the side channels. Return to the boat for breakfast and cruise. After a while we’d leave the boat and hike – one day it was through the flat lands, another day it was through the forest to the beach at the Bay of Bengal. I was hoping we’d see the famous Sundarban resident – the Royal Bengal Tiger, only 400 of which survive in the wild! Return to the boat for lunch, afternoon was another trip, dinner, and then hang out. Some amazing moments:
• At one point, we got to this area in the Bay that was fresh sea mud (think Dead Sea mud), and we all waded in and just lay there in this amazing, cool mud, totally covered except our eyes, nose, and mouth. It felt fabulous to burrow ourselves into this mud! Once we were still after a few minutes, the surface of the mud became alive – literally – with these little tadpole-type fish that started hopping around. It was so neat to lay there and watch them (and yes, I had a momentary ewww moment thinking about what might be touching me, but I got over that quick!).
• The morning row boat trips were the most magical. The sun had already risen, but it was a soft light, and the morning fog was still blanketing the water. It was so quiet and still. We also saw many fishermen, using both lines in the river and nets along the river banks, as well as boats filled with wood and grass that workers were harvesting from the forest to sell inland (mostly to make the walls and/or roofs of thatched huts). I assume that the workers were there legally, having obtained permits. During one morning row boat ride, we saw the paw prints of a tiger along the banks of the river as if the tiger had swam across and pulled itself out onto the river banks. I got chills seeing them! So big, so beautiful!
• Three times we went trekking through the forest, each time with 2 armed guards (on at the front and one at the back) in case we ran into a tiger and had any trouble. Once we walked through some dense underbrush (we were told here to walk close single file) through to a beach along the Bay of Bengal; we saw tiger paw prints along the sand, but no tiger  Another time we walked along the grasses and got to see the view from the top of an observation tower. We also walked along a wooden path through another part of the forest, and came to an area where the trees and land had been destroyed by a hurricane.
• While we didn’t see any tigers :-( or flying foxes :-( we did see lots of other animals:
o Birds, birds, birds! – white-bellied sea-eagle; brahminy kite; crested serpent-eagle; honey bees; butterflies; dragonflies; flameback woodpeckers; masked finfoots; kingfishers (brown-winged, white-throated); rufous treepie; greater racket-tailed drongo; common koel; black hooded oriole; small minivet; scarlet minivet; oriental magpie-robin; white wagtail; great egret; stork. The only reason I know all of these names is because on of the Swedes was amazing at spotting birds and knowing what they were; I had him sit with me and show me the different ones we saw in my Sundarban guide book.
o Chital, spotted deer (we saw these all over). We thought it was really cool seeing how one type of tree along the sides of the river seemed to be uniformly trimmed to a perfect height, until we were told by our guide that the height was how high the deer could reach!
o Wild boar
o Rhesus macaque monkey
o Oriental small-clawed otter
o Water monitor lizard
o Indo-Pacific crocodile
o Mudskippers, crabs
o Ganges river dolphin
Who knows how many other animals were there but we missed seeing!
• The boat and trip itself was really comfortable, and the food was amazing!!!! The best food I had in Bangladesh!
It was a wonderful trip.

Conference – The conference was great to participate in. I witnessed the first ever South Asia regional early childhood conference. People were there from all over South Asia: Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Maldives, Burma, Nepal, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka. It was 3 days of meeting people, learning about projects in other countries, and hearing about research results. I know, geeky, but I loved it! I met some great people as well, and got a chance to see Apnan again before leaving.

Unfortunately, the hotel I moved to be closer to the conference venue sucked!!!! They were almost an hour late picking me up from the airport. They kept messing up the conference transportation. The food was gross; all I ate there was the breakfasts, and the options were limited and (supposedly) hot food was cold. One conference attendee moved rooms because her first room had bed bugs. One attendee missed his flight and had to stay an extra 2 days because the hotel never called and confirmed his flight for him (which they said they would do). The staff were lackluster and seemed like they could barely tolerate being at work. This experience only showed me how excellent my original hotel was.

My last night in Bangladesh – After a day of relaxing and trying to pack everything into 2 bags which seemed to have shrunk since the last time I used them, Elisa and I went to get a massage and facial. It’s lucky I didn’t live in her neighborhood, or else I would have been to that spa every weekend! Afterwards, we met with Sara and Massimo and the four of us went to dinner. It was the perfect comedy of errors to send me off! Shahrukh Khan, aka King Khan, a massive Bollywood movie star, was in Dhaka performing a sold-out concert. It was all over the tv, and it seemed the entire capital was going gaga over his presence. We went to the restaurant and they were showing the concert on tv. We were the only ones there, except two couples sitting at a long table set for over 20 people near a huge buffet. After a while one couple left, and we realized it was a woman having a birthday party, and no one else showed up! She was alternating between hysterical crying and yelling into the phone at her guests who didn’t come (apparently everyone bailed to go to the concert). I give major kudos to her man (boyfriend? Husband?) who was there with her the entire night and tried to keep her calm. One couple and her father finally showed up, and they got into another yelling match about which was more important, her birthday or the concert. Ah, live theater.

On top of that, the wait and kitchen staff were also engrossed in the televised concert, so first they only cooked Sara’s and Massimo’s meals. When we finally asked where Elisa’s and my meals were, they only brought out mine – after Sara and Massimo had finished theirs. Elisa and I split some food, good thing I wasn’t too hungry! It took a while to finally find someone to give us our bill; we finally walked up to the register. However, the birthday girl was there throwing another fit over having to pay for the buffet since no one came and ate the food; she was finally saying she would take the food home as we were leaving. Oh well. But what do you expect, scheduling a buffet birthday dinner on the same night as King Khan???

Home - My flight home was comfortable and uneventful. I got smacked, as usual, with bad jet lag. Belated happy holidays to everyone.

So now I am home, searching for my next opportunity. I have no idea what, where it will be; all I can do is keep my eyes open, my immunizations up to date, and my bags packed!



Oct-Nov in Bangladesh

So, I finally finished and submitted my report draft and was thinking what to do today when I realized that I haven’t posted ANYTHING about my stay in Bangladesh for 2 months! I am so bad at keeping in touch this way…. Sorry….

Anyway, I have been keeping notes these past 2 months, so let’s see what still makes sense and what doesn’t. For some things, I’ll write paragraphs, for others, you may get a bullet point or two… maybe a sentence here or there… I have made it clear my blog is stream of consciousness, right?

So, I really spent a lot of time with G, and it was great. For the first time, I felt like I had a mentor in this consulting biz. It was so helpful to spent time with someone who has been doing this for – literally – decades, answer my questions, and share with me some tips. I wish I had this type of mentoring when I first started, and not during my 4th consultancy! Oh well, they were/are all learning opportunities.

The education sector manager, H, is Somali and is here with his wife and 3 sons. Turns out H and H have been friends for more than 20 years! H invited me, G, and N (education chief) over to his place for dinner one night, and it was great. I have kept it quiet that I’m Jewish, but at dinner there was me, H who is Muslim, N who is Hindi, and G who was Christian-now-‘reformed’ (as she put it). We talked about the similarities of religions, and N said a quote I absolutely loved –
“I believe in G-d, just not the contractors between me and G-d.”
What a wonderful commentary on organized religion. It brought many thoughts to mind, but I won’t get into it here; feel free to reply to this post with any questions.
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Just outside the hotel across the street is Gulshan Lake Park, and G and I got into a routine on the weekends to walk around the lake when we could. So nice!
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There was a big accident 12 October when a bus plunged off a bridge and into the river. Not a far drop, but a drop nonetheless and many deaths occurred. My UNICEF-partner A, a Bangladeshi, said this and I found it so sad –
“The only thing that is valueless in Bangladesh is peoples’ lives.”
What a sad thought. But they are struggling with such poverty, such over population, in some ways you have to divorce yourself from the suffering of others so you can survive yourself.
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I don’t know how many/ if any of you know this, but I was trained in Reiki Jin Kei Do. Turns out, there is a Bangladeshi UNICEF staff person here, N, that is a Reiki master! She loves that I know what it is and she has someone to talk with about it!
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At home I love the dish palak paneer – basically, spinach and cheese. For over a month, I kept asking if the hotel had any, and every time they said, not tonight. Ok, must be a popular dish? Maybe the kitchen didn’t prepare it today? After a while I was getting so sick of them saying they didn’t have it – fine, take it off the menu, and don’t tell me “not tonight”! Well, someone finally told me they don’t have it because the leaves are out of season. D’uh! If they had just told me…. Of course, it is my bad as well. We in America have gotten so used to having access to different foods all year round (no commentary here on whether that is good or bad, healthy or not; it just *is*), that it didn’t occur to me to ask what was in season and not.
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So H was called to Pakistan to assist with the emergency flood relief there. I’m bummed, he’s such a great, knowledgeable guy and I was hoping to use him as a mentor as well but it didn’t happen. In fact, when he returns from Pakistan he is only in Bangladesh another month or so and then he leaves for a new position in Namibia! So, a month into my contract and my head boss is gone, on top of my supervisor being gone.

Unfortunately, a few weeks after H left his house was robbed. They broke in at night while his wife and sons were sleeping, and took all their electronics. Luckily they all slept through it; if one of them woke up and scared the robber(s), who knows what could have happened. They think it was an inside job, someone who knew what they had and where the items were located in the house, and who knew that H had left. Pretty scary. After that, guards were posted outside their building.
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So for work I had to contribute information for the Directorate Primary Education’s (DPE) plan. I was told 5-6 pages. Well, they have to do so much work if they are committed to providing pre-primary, I just wrote a 4 page, 5-year strategic plan covering the areas of access, quality, management and monitoring, and partnerships. They have so much work ahead of them, if they truly want to provide pre-primary that is quality.
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End of October; M is back from Thailand. His daughter’s surgery was a success. On his day back, I passed his office and saw him in the corner on his prayer mat, praying. It was very touching to see.
The next day I met with him and reviewed what I have done so far (really well) and how things have been doing with the DPE (not so good, they have been too busy to dedicate much time to pre-primary). He was disappointed that more has not been achieved so far, but then again, that’s politics, and it’s not my place to tell them what to do, only make suggestions and offer alternatives. Oh well.
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29 October – so today we went to the zoo, me and the Italians – E, M, E’s friend S, S’s son S (3.5), S’s driver, and driver’s daughter S (5). The zoo itself was a nice park with a lake, but the zoo was so depressing and pathetic. The animals were in empty cages, concrete floors, most in the cage alone. As we were walking around, everyone was staring at us and I noticed many – mostly men – were taking our pictures with their cell phones. It was a weird feeling.

At one point we were walking and daughter S held my hand. It was so sweet! We kept trying to get S’s dad to come into the zoo with us, but he insisted on staying with the car most of the time.

One random guy kept taking pictures of the kids, so I told him to stop. He started to get cocky, so I stuck my camera in his face and asked him how he liked it.

The gorilla cage was the most depressing. There was only one gorilla, and the largest crowd was around him. Everyone was taunting the gorilla. When it swung, they cheered. When it growled and yelled, they did the same back. When it shook the cages, they screamed. It was so sad to see. I wish I could have stopped them, but even if I could, it would have continued with the next group coming to the cage.

After the zoo E and I hung out at M’s house, and I had “authentic” Italian coffee using an Italian mocha machine – add water, then ground coffee, then put it on the stove top. It was so delicious!

That evening we went to the Indian Cultural Center and listened to a concert of Indian folk singing. It was interesting.
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I was talking with my maid, and he said (mostly men work in all areas of the hotel business, at my hotel there is only one female employee and she works the front desk) that he only makes $45/month salary.
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One day I was in a taxi and was talking with the driver. He told me when I asked that to get a driver’s license; one has to take a vision test, blood test, written test, and interview. I couldn’t understand if there is a behind the wheel driving test as well. Then he told me, if someone has enough money they can pay [a bribe] and do not need the interview; more money and they don’t need the test. He also told me the past 5 years has seen a lot of growth in the North Dhaka Gulshan area. Think of New York and the 5 boroughs; here you have Dhaka (Old and Central), Gulshan 1 and 2; Banani, Dhanmondi, and other neighborhoods. Gulshan 1 & 2 have most of the embassies and embassy clubs, high end shops, etc. Most of the cultural things to see are in Old Dhaka and Central Dhaka, and they are hard to get to.

I did make it to the National Museum one day. I love going to the museum any time I go to a new country, because it says so much about how that country defines who they are and what they see as important. The museum was large, 4 floors, and included: village life in the past, including fishing, boats, household, farming items (which I found to be, very interestingly, similar to Cambodia). I was the only foreigner there, though on a Saturday many families and small groups of university students were there. I saw a man in a rugby shirt with “Manu Samoa” on the back! I got so excited! Manu Samoa is the Samoan rugby team, and that is where I was a Peace Corps volunteer. I asked him where he got it, and it required another person with better English skills to help with the conversation. Turns out he bought it here…. Bangladesh making rugby shirts for the little island of Samoa… how cool.

I met up with G for her good-bye dinner at the Westin, and had mango daiquiri (never had that before, yum!) and a glass of wine to toast her survival. I will miss her.
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N took me to a market and then we took a cng home. The market was insane, a maze of small dark stalls, I would never go in there alone. It was overwhelming on all senses, more so than the markets in Cambodia. On the ride home, N was telling me about someone putting black magic on her because she had been having some troubles with one person.
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N came by with another friend who is from Burma (interestingly, they don’t call their country Myanmar as the military regime calls it) and she gave me a facial. So nice!
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Tomorrow, 17 November, is Eid al-Adha. In Islam it celebrates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Ishmael (in Judeo-Christian, it is Isaac), and Muslims sacrifice a cow, sheep, or goat. The past few weeks, lots of animals have been brought into the city. It has been so weird seeing all these cows walking the main roads and clogging up traffic.

My hotel brought me a plate of sweets ‘thanking me’ for staying with them during Eid and wishing me Eid Mubarak.

So on the day of Eid, I walked around and while I did not see any animals actually get slaughtered, I saw blood on the roads, a dead cow being skinned, and the “remainder” of a goat – skin, hoofs, etc. I didn’t have the heart to walk around to see anything else.
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So I have noticed in this culture, as in other countries I have worked in, one is considered a ‘youth’ until they are married. So you can be a 40 year old youth. That is the stress they put on getting married.
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An observation – many times I have heard conversations going on in Bangla, and it sounds like people are arguing based on tone and volume of voice. However, I have asked friends and I have learned that it is a conversational style. In some contexts they might not pause in conversation, especially when they are enthusiastic about a topic, so you need to speak louder to get heard. This makes it seem like people are arguing, but they are not. More like a spirited debate :-) 
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So after 2 straight weeks of working on my report, including weekends and the Eid holiday, I finally submitted my report draft! That means – day off!!! I went walking in the neighborhood, and a street boy followed me for 5 blocks begging. I tried to get away from him and even crossed the street and he followed me! I ducked into what I thought was a shop, but it was a salon, which turned out to have a spa! So, I got a massage! Heaven…… and no, the boy was not working for them to drive in customers, but that would have been smart! I had lunch and then went to the top floor of Westin (the 5 star hotel in Gulshan) and sat outside on their balcony off the restaurant/bar overlooking Gulshan 2 circle to read. Nice breeze…. So relaxing.
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25 November
So, I decided to go to Dhanmondi today since I haven’t explored that area before. The 1st CNG I got in wouldn't tell me the cost and he had already started to drive off, so I told him to pull over. I called a guy on the street over, I told the guy the driver just needs to tell me the cost, they talked some and driver left with another fare. The guy on street talking with me asked for my help at the embassy; turned out he was on his way there with passport, paperwork, etc. I told him I didn’t know anyone so I couldn’t help. We flag down another CNG. This driver and guy on the street talk, and the driver says he knows where I want to go; we settle on a price. We start driving, and soon I realize that at every light or pause in traffic he starts asking everyone on the street where the location is. He pulls up next to a cop, and the cop gives him directions after I get out and show the cop my map (at which time, we've collected an audience). So, we drive, and I’m thinking, this doesn’t look familiar..... Then we get to a neighborhood and he starts asking everyone again for the street number.... I know we're wrong because we're in a residential area. He pulls up next to a police van and starts talking to them, and one cop asks me where I want to go. I show him the map, and turns out the CNG driver took me to a neighborhood on the other side of the city! The neighborhoods sounded similar, but we were in the wrong place. So, the cop gives the driver directions for correct location. He gets back in, and the CNG won't start; it had been stalling on and off the whole time. Now I'm sitting there for about 10 minutes while he's trying to jump the CNG. By now I’ve been on the street with the cops about 15 minutes, and another group of about 5 men have gathered. All talking, telling the guy what to do, try this, do that. The driver walks off, I'm still in the CNG, realize this is stupid so I get out and stand on the sidewalk with the cops and men. About 10 minutes later, just as a cop flags down an empty CNG, the driver comes back in a 3rd CNG. So I pay the driver, who then turns around and pays some of the money to driver #3 to take me where I want to go; meanwhile CNG #2 stays behind to help jump original driver. What an adventure. At least the last group of cops and men were really nice. I think they were happy I didn’t throw a fit; in fact I thought it was all kind of funny and was smiling and laughing. And, to top it all off, when I finally got to Dhanmondi I had lunch at an eatery since that is what I could find, and it decided to revisit an hour later. Oh well.
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So this past weekend was my last full weekend in Dhaka, and it was so much fun! First, N’s Burmese friend came by to show my some jewelry she had made and we chatted, talked about her kids, jewelry, facials, skin care, travel. We exchanged emails and addresses. Then I went to visit a Buddhist monastery in Dhaka. I went to Old Dhaka to A’s house, where I met her husband and daughter (age 9 or so?); we had lunch. A doesn’t have a car, and since I had rented a car and driver I had the pleasure of going to some places with them that they had never been to before either! We went to one huge building called the “Pink Palace” which is now a museum, and A’s daughter’s enthusiasm was infectious. Her favorite subject is history, so this was perfect (she also talked my ear off the entire time! Such a cutie!!). Of course, I was one of the few foreigners there, and I became a walking exhibit. One boy – around the daughter’s age or a few years younger – followed us the entire time, even to our car. It was weird. Then we went to “Hindu Street”, which is in a Hindu neighborhood and extremely narrow and crowded. Afterwards we went back to A’s house and they invited me to stay for dinner; the daughter said that I am the only coworker she has ever invited over to the house. What an honor!

Saturday I went to Sonargoan with the Italians – E and M and a 3rd Italian who works with M (I can’t remember his name). The traffic was horrible, but it was such a fun day! Sonargoan is the historical capital of Bangladesh, and one major mansion is now a museum, and further down the road is an old ghost-town like road with abandoned, falling apart buildings (it felt like in Cambodia; not the religious aspect of the temples in Angkor Wat, but just the buildings in ruin). While walking around the museum, we had a few people follow us again, listening to what we were talking about and seeing what exhibits we stopped to look at. As we were walking down the road of the ruins and I was taking pictures, a cow nearby (survived Eid!) walked over to me – and licked my hand! I petted her head, and then she kept licking me. I tried to stop, and she head butted my hand until I pet her again! It was insane! I have never been licked by a cow before!

When we returned to Dhaka we went to E’s house after picking up some pizza and watched “Killing Fields” based on Khmer Rouge; E had gone to Cambodia during the Eid holiday and wanted to watch it. I hadn’t seen it before, and while it was tough to watch it was brilliantly done.
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So, it is coming close to leaving! I have work on Monday, and Tuesday is my last day! I better get any comments by then so I can finalize my report. Thursday I leave for a 4 day cruise down the river in the Sundarban Forest, home of the largest mangroves and the Bengal Tiger. I have been told we *don’t* want to see a tiger, but I kind of do! ;-) I am sooooo excited!

When I come back to Dhaka after the trip, I attend a 3 day South Asia Region early childhood conference. I can’t wait!




 So this ends my 3rd week in Bangladesh, and while I have not had time to update my blog, I have been taking notes. It has been raining since yesterday, and I decided now is a good time to share the notes I’ve been taking.

As always, these notes were written as they occurred, stream-of-consciousness.

I forgot to mention about this in my earlier post, but when I landed in Dhaka and was waiting for my luggage, I kept seeing gallons of water come through the conveyor belt – turned out half the flight were pilgrims returning from Mecca during Eid, and they had brought back holy water.

So last week was the Technical Mission (TM). This leads to an explanation of why I’m here. The Technical Mission is a weekly workshop between donors and the Ministry of Primary and Mass Education, Department of Primary Education. The TM is part of a larger process to develop the strategic plans for the next five years. I am here because the Ministry has mandated to provide one year of pre-primary education as part of the primary schooling (for age 5; the equivalent in America to kindergarten). I am here to assist them in developing their plan for this component for the next 5 years. The TM was really interesting, because you had the donors –literally – on one side of the table, with Dept. of Primary on the other side, and UNICEF forming the bottom of the “U”. Most donors were there – World Bank, ADB, AusAID – but, notice who wasn’t? USAID. Why? Because most donors have shifted to a “SWAp” process, or sector-wide approach. This means, they work together with governments to addresses systems and areas for development in a more holistic way, rather than isolated projects. USAID, it seems still takes a project approach. Another difference, which I learned at the TM and what they are looking to do with this new 5-year cycle, is for the donors to use the treasury model – all the donors will put their money in one big pot to be delivered to the Ministry in increments, based on this plan they are writing for implementation. This is different from other methods when donor payment is based on deliverables or achieved outcomes, and provides a more consistent flow of money for the overall system. USAID doesn’t want to participate because it would be too hard to track the money on their end, and the GAO (USA general accounting office) won’t accept those terms. But what does it mean for USAID to not be at the table? They have little say in the direction the Department of Primary Education is taking, they lose representation among the other power donors, and their support is more project- rather than systems-based. As I learn more about international development in general, I found this very interesting. Ok, enough about ‘serious’ stuff.

So, I have been trying to think of an analogy to use with my counterparts about the difference between focusing on existing classrooms to increase quality vs. expansion first to address access. I thought of this analogy:
You want to build a 2 story brick building. You make enough bricks for the first floor. Now, you have a choice – 1. You could let those bricks harden and set while making the bricks for the 2nd floor, and as the 2nd floor bricks harden you make the 1st floor, and then add the 2nd floor when those bricks are dry. 2. The other choice you have is to build the 1st floor with the bricks that have not yet hardened, then make the 2nd floor bricks and add those on top. 
Which do you choose? What impacted your decision?

So I told you about one consultant who is here, R, who is an amputee? Last Saturday the 3rd consultant finally joined us, G, and she is great. She is also older, in her 60s, and she’s been consulting for 30 years. I can seriously see tapping her as a mentor. And, it turns out she knows one of my profs from my Masters ITEP at American University! Very cool! I was having breakfast when she arrived and she joined me; when I mentioned I was heading out to do a little shopping (clothes, sandals) she asked to join me so she could fight off jet lag. I felt bad, like I was “dragging” her around on my errands, but she wanted to come.

We headed back to the hotel after a few hours, and on the road my rickshaw passed E’s – an Italian working with UNICEF. She had told me yesterday about a concert, and as we passed she said she was on the way to it – I asked to join her and her friend and caught up with them a few minutes later after I ran to my hotel and dropped G and my stuff off. Well, the concert was an experience! It was an all-day festival of Bangladeshi rock bands!! Think 80’s hard rock music. It was fantastic!! Band after band played at the Army Navy Stadium, an open-air venue. Had no clue what they were singing about. We got there around 2:30pm, and we 3 were the only foreigners. As the day wore on, more people came; while there were some women, and even a few families with kids, the audience was predominantly – 80%-90% - men. And yes, we got some looks, more surprised than anything that we were there. E’s friend, a fellow Italian, is an older gentleman working with World Food Program, and was our ‘chaperone’. And yes, some guys came up and talked to him instead of us directly to see if we were enjoying ourselves, but there were a few guys who were brave enough to come up and talk. One kid, it was so cute, came and was asking who we were, where we were from, why were we there, and what were our ‘qualifications’. I am learning that each culture has standard quirky small talk dialogue; in America, it is ‘where do you work?’, in Samoa and Fiji it was ‘what is your church, are you married, do you have children?’, and here in Bangladesh it is ‘what is your qualification?’ aka what are you/did you study and what are your degree(s) in. This kid was a freshman in college, his English wasn’t too good, but I give him major kudos for having the bravery to come up and start a conversation with us. E’s friend saw one guy who looked like a Bollywood-actor wannabee, and had E and I take a picture with him. I’m sure the guy was thinking, what the f***? HA! It was hilarious seeing most guys just doing the small head bop, though a few did some outright classic head banging. I took some random video throughout the day, and even managed to get a group of guy toss a friend in the air! HA! Yes, Muslims can be moderate, fun, and not a threat at all! We stayed until about 7pm, when the sun was setting, so we could be out of the stadium by the time it got dark. When we left, I still only saw about 10 foreigners (trust me, we stand out, I could count). At the gate when we arrived, security took E’s and her friend’s cigarettes, and said we could get them when we left. Well, when we left E’s were there but not his. In response to the missing cigarettes, the head of security was so “ashamed” (as explained to us by others there) that he took the bag and tore up every cigarette in every box there – I guess, someone took this guy’s cigarettes and he couldn’t get them back, no one could get theirs’ back either. It was weird standing there, watching him tear them all up, and not knowing what was happening at first. We went out to dinner after, and when I got home, I still heard the music until 10pm from my hotel! What a great experience.

So I have spent the past week in a new hotel, and I am finally getting some sleep! It is much more comfortable.

During one of my interviews for work, I bumped into a woman in the elevator at one office and complemented her on her necklace. Turns out, she’s a Canadian (originally Persian from Iran, moved to Canada at age 19) working with an NGO, and her work is with early childhood. I gave her my card, and a few days later she called and asked me to tea after work so she could ask me some questions about what I am doing. Well, it turned into 2 hours, and then she invited me to join her over at a friend’s house for dinner. There were about 6 of us, 4 internationals and 2 Bangladeshis (one of which also was originally Persian from Iran) and I didn’t get home until 10:30! Wasn’t it supposed to be a quick meeting over tea?

Some observations I have made so far:
• You know you’ve had traveler’s tummy too often and for too long when you get excited for semi-formed poop.
• The offices for World Bank and Asian Development Bank, beautiful, gated buildings, are next to slums made from corrugated tin.
• Each time I have visited a school, they feed us; I feel so awful when they are hungry and they fix us these huge meals. Though it is fun to eat rice with your hand.
• Crap I had the wrong terms of reference!
• H, one of my UNICEF supervisors and the education manager, is leaving next week for Pakistan to help with the flooding relief efforts, and then is transferring to Namibia. Too bad, I really like him, and wish I had more time to work with him.

Traffic. I will never complain about traffic again. G, who worked 4 years in Afghanistan recently, said the traffic here is more demoralizing than being in a war zone. I think that says something. Our hotel and UNICEF are only 6 miles apart, and with little traffic could take 10 minutes. A typical day it takes an hour. Yesterday, on the way home in the rain, it took 1.5 hours. I found the constant honking amusing, and wrote this little poem (most all drivers are men)….

Ode to The Horn

You are my power, as I sit emasculated in this traffic
Surrounded by tons of metal, clouds of smog
Victim to the elements.
I want to yell, to scream! Oh horn, you are my voice!
HONK
In this city of millions, the most populous in the world,
I must be heard.
HONK
Buses, trucks, vans, SUVs, cars, motos, CNGs, rickshaws
All fighting for the same small space on the road.
The population has grown, the number of vehicles has grown,
But we are all in the same space.
I need to move!
HONK
Poverty consumes us
The beggars and street children on the road take advantage of the stopped traffic,
Banging on our windows in search of…..
What? Money? Food? Recognition that they are alive?
Sitting in this traffic, the emptiness in their eyes mirrors my life,
Slipping away, as I sit, in this traffic…
One hour to drive ½ kilometer
I have to MOVE!!
HONK!!!!!!!