There’s not a lot of dividing line between work and play for me here, something I’ve always managed in other times and places. I live upstairs and work downstairs; and, like last year in Nanning (before moving to Beijing), I share a house with my colleagues. Right now the colleagues are our Head of Mission (absolutely delightful and impressive French woman), Deputy Head of Mission/Logistician (Sri Lankan guy who’s been in the US, currently Berkeley, for some years), a surgeon waiting for a chance to get to our project on the Jaffna Peninsula, and me. We eat our meals and tell jokes together (the macabre humor does come out occasionally, I must admit), and of course work closely together all day long. Mercifully, as of last week we have one office staff member whom we’ve hired locally, so it’s not purely the three of us – until she arrived, it was just the expats working in the office and that might have felt a bit claustrophic. (Otherwise, we’ve got drivers, house watchmen, cook, cleaner – but we don’t work quite so closely with them all day long.) The whole mission is still a bit in startup mode: my predecessor and the Deputy HoM/Log arrived, with one incarnation of the HoM, in early June to establish accounts and procedures, set up the office/house and start bringing on board all the people to run our actual programs. Since then each HoM has basically worked a month (Judith, here now, is the third and she’s planning to leave in mid September to be replaced by another short-termer; after him, we seem set finally to get a HoM who will be here at least a few months); my predecessor has just left, and the deputy HoM/log plans to leave later in September…at which point, after a month here, I’ll be the person who’s been in coordination the longest.
This makes us, I think, a more typical MSF mission than China was – remember that MSF’s roots and core are humanitarian emergency medical relief, to populations affected by disasters (whether natural or man-made), epidemics, and so on. So very often MSF staff are flying into a wholly new place to get things started, which means finding living and working quarters; establishing an ability to receive (from Paris) and exchange EUR or USD; hiring translators, office staff, and drivers; establishing contacts with appropriate national and local authorities (usually ministry of health and its branches and offices) to establish the locations, needs and guidelines for our intervention; and then to start bringing on board the medical staff – both expat and national – needed to help people. But since our China mission was long established and I actually shut down more offices than I opened while there, I’m enjoying the rather “frontier” feel of this current work. It does mean, though, that I’ve a tendency – especially now that I have my own bedroom to retreat to when absolutely necessary, and now that I’ve got my office set up very much to my liking – to just start working any time I’m awake and not feeling completely sick of the work: so I find myself at the desk at 7AM, or 9PM, and think little of it as long as the ball is moving down the field on at least some level. (We accentuate the positive here.)
These notes have dragged on more than long enough and I do hope I’ve not bored you to tears. So I’ll close with some thoughts on the wildlife of Colombo. The first thing I noticed, right away my first morning, were the fantastic and clearly tropical bird sounds. It’s like the feeling I had two weeks ago, on my jungle-trail hike on Tioman Island, Malaysia (how long ago and far away does THAT seem now!): the kinds of sounds that – growing up – I only heard when I went to the tropical bird house at the zoo are now my morning and evening serenade. To my chagrin, I find on the downside that I’m back in the land of roaches on testosterone. Longtime NYC friends will recall my explaining that at least NYC roaches have the winter die-off to keep them in check: not so the subtropical ones I met in Taiwan. ‘Twas there that I first learned that roaches, like little boys and girls the world over, dream of flying one day – except, of course, that roaches really do when they live in the right climate! And we won’t go into the ants: imagine me putting an open packet of crackers into the freezer in order to clear a minor ant infestation, 12 hours after I opened it, and you get the idea.
But where’s the “circle of life” balance? What eats these little beasties? The lizards! Imagine me just last evening around 7:15, studiously working on the accounting at my desk, when a little shadow scuttles across some of the receipts I’m sorting and entering: the most adorable little 2-centimeter lizard that any lizard mom could possibly hope for seemed to positively squeak with fear to get out of my way when he felt my eyes upon him. But fear not, little lizard, I hope that you and all your bigger cousins will continue sharing this lovely, big house with me – and eating all those darned ants and spiders that seem intent on squatting here as well.
‘Til next time, mes amis. Send up good thoughts for peace and humanitarian space. Both are needed here.