Remembering in December

My wandering field life passed the ten-year mark earlier this year. That’s ten years of finding my way into a new work environment and getting to know new colleagues once a year or so. In a more mundane way, it’s ten years worth of photo files to keep up-to-date and to try to remember to share on my blog. A cousin (thanks, Juliette!) noticed that the entries from my earliest days had lost their photos: mine was a rather early blog, and the ways of uploading photos have changed since then.  (Many of those earliest posts appear frankly so embarrassingly shallow to me now that I’m tempted to simply wave my editorial wand and have done with them…but thus far my sense for historical accuracy is controlling that temptation…) If my continued research succeeds, many of those photos will be directly restored onto the blog as I find their originals in backup hard drives and other obscure locations: ah, new year’s resolutions before the old year has even wrapped up!

In the meantime, I’m uncovering little treasures that never made it up here, while fondly remembering where I’ve been and what I’ve done. I was recently saddened to learn that Nancy Schrom Dye, former president of Oberlin College, had passed this year. During my years of active alumni-association work I greatly appreciated her contributions to my alma mater – so I was proud to join some other colleagues in taking her for an end-of-year meal which, the digital date stamp tells me, occurred in Beijing on December 31, in 2005. Up above are also a few rediscovered December 2005 Beijing-area shots which somehow didn’t get posted at the time. (Posting photos was more challenging in those early days…)

Just below are some previously-unposted 2015 shots: early-morning moonset at my home here in Haiti; me with my brother and a colleague when I gave a talk at Carnegie Mellon University earlier this year; and some shots from the lovely Frick House & museum in Pittsburgh, from the same visit. And since this put me in the mood, I’ve wandered through the many countries & continents, family meals & trips & assignments on four continents that have filled the years between these two sets of photos so very fully. Assembling them’s been fun for me so I hope viewing them is fun for you too :-).

This time last year? In December 2014, I returned from Sierra Leone & later went with great friends to enjoy the Ai WeiWei exhibit on Alcatraz Island (more photos from that one in the original post….though that particular set of great friends – you know who you are! – are remarkably camera-resistant):

Where’d I spend 2013? Living in PNG, participating in meetings in Amsterdam & dive trips in Australia, then celebrating the holidays with Steve & Mom in New Zealand:

I began 2012 in the US (where I visited Washington, DC in cherry-blossom season), turned 50 in the company of Howard & Gene at Kakadu National Park in Australia, and finished the year in PNG:

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2011 was mostly Mweso, a little Lamu, a little London and a year-end back home seeing Frank Lloyd Wright homes of Pennsylvania with family:

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2010…wow, what a year. Just seeing all the continents and countries where I spent time (actually meaningful time, with friends and family and work) makes my head spin even now. The photos evoked so much for me that I just couldn’t narrow it down to three or four…so I’m giving you a lot from 2010, a mix of Manipur (start of year) and Mweso (end of year), with a sprinkling of Sweden, Berlin, Paris & California in between:

House, Valley, Hills on Hike - Pre-Monsoon Season

I entered 2009 in Tahiti, yes it’s true: during the year I took off from work to help Mom with her house, I dedicated two months to exploring Australia (and watching the Australian Open!) and New Zealand, flying in via Tahiti with a few nights in Papeete, just because I could. The year ended, of course, in Manipur and included a great trip to see excellent sites of Rajasthan with Howard & Gene:

Ngauruhoe Summit View of Lakes & Clouds

2008 started in Nigeria, and ended in Tahiti…with a lot of good work in Nigeria, a short assignment for the earthquake in China, visits in Germany with my exchange family friends there….and a good deal of time in and around NYC (Mom, aunt Judy & I enjoyed a harbor trip past Ellis Island where our own immigrant ancestors entered the country, and also a trip to our favorite sculpture park up th Husdon)…with a side trip for some hiking in Sequoia and other California adventures:
Rivers-Abia Border Boats & River

2007…I began the year based in Colombo but spend the new year’s period with Mom & Steve at  Angkor Wat, returned to Colombo to finish out an assignment, headed on for training in Paris where I also got celebrate Mom’s 71st birthday…back to the US to reorganize my life after my first two years in the field, and then off for a new assignment in Nigeria. At the time it felt big. Now it’s all fond memories:

…which will bring us back to year two of this current phase of life’s great adventure, the lovely year 2006. From Beijing & Yunnan in China, to Polonnaruwa & Sigiriya in Sri Lanka (where I was based at year’s end), with family time on Cumberland Island (Mom’s 70th birthday dinner!) and in Germany in between. With a special souvenir from Seoul, where I had the opportunity to work a bit with the young ladies pictured with their daffodils. In a small-world twist, I had dinner with one of those two young ladies just a few nights ago in Port au Prince, which she visits sometimes in her current work with the CDC. So much small world, so little time for it all. Happy end of 2015, and many good hopes for a 2016 of more peace and health to everyone, everywhere.KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Marvelous Memories of Manipur

so much world, so little time has finally managed to sort the hundreds of photos that accumulated during my last months in Manipur and my weeks of travel in northern Europe after I left India. You’ll note that we’ve also settled on a new blog site – something we’ve felt needed doing since our last posts from India, showing the sights and scenes of my lovely vacation in Kerala. Why, you ask? My old site,, had introduced a new photo editor which made it impossible for more than one or two photo-heavy posts like mine to appear on the main page. They didn’t even offer me any choices, as the current host does, about paying for upgrades to allow a heavier front page…they just changed it and – shazam – many of you were suddenly unable to understand, for example, that I posted four different ‘stories’ or entries about Kerala. In the 5-1/2 years I posted at blogspot, I’d developed a certain style and many of you had gotten used to it. I know who most of my readers are because you’re mostly my friends, family & colleagues from around the world. I hope you’ll feel the current site allows you a better overview of what I’ve been doing than the old site under its new posting rules. All of the old posts, from February 2005 on, have been imported here – but honestly, they show up better there if you can take the time to click on the individual link for each one, because the wordpress importer shrank all the photos. I’m also going to have to figure out a way to show an ‘archive’ column on the left or right of my main page, so it’s easier to navigate to the past entries. But for now, I wanted to show you some of these lovely memories of my nine months in Manipur, along with – lower down – some visual highlights from my weeks exploring new parts of northern Europe.

My style has necessarily changed with this new blog: many of the photos appear far larger than they ever did before; to balance that, many of the other images will appear in gallery format so it doesn’t take so much time to load and scan through the pages. In all cases, you can click on a photo to see a full-size version, or its name. Some of the names will tell you something, many are more for my information than the general public’s. Please give me feedback: what you do and don’t like about the posts, the text, the new host, the photos, the design, my current hair style, you name it. Write on my own address, if you want, or leave a comment here – which is pretty easy to do, I think.  (Guess I’ll find out, huh?) Above all, I hope you enjoy these peeks of where I’ve been and what I’ve been doing since January.

Coming back one day on the road between Sugnu and Tuining, the skies just opened up – hail, massive rain, rivers in the roads. Below is a school being evacuated after the creek by which it sits got a bit too big for its banks from the same storm – the shot below was taken about 10km and 30 minutes down the road after the shot above.

Though I left Manipur nearly three months ago (!!) and have been back in the US nearly two months, somehow I simply haven’t gotten to sorting these photos, settling on a new blog host, and deciding what and how to show you all. Believe it or not, I’ve eliminated well over half the photos from posting. I’m afraid that I’m still asking you to look at a LOT of photos, but I find Manipur, its people and places, so endlessly photogenic and interesting. If you’ve followed so much world, so little time for while, then you know I have a basic rule that this blog is about my experiences as a person and not really about the work I do in the places I go with MSF. However, in the case of these photos I’ve decided to include more photos taken on the job, or taken of me at the job, than I normally would. I’m also including, farther down, a whole gallery of faces of colleagues, friends and patients from Manipur. I hope these people don’t mind appearing here, and I hope they and readers all understand that I do this as tribute and thanks to the people, places and communities that have left strong impressions and lasting memories with me. Spending a year in Manipur, I hope, helped me learn more humility: the face of MSF that donor countries normally see is the ‘expatriate,’ best known in the US from characters on the TV shows Will & Grace or ER that do similar work. But in Manipur, perhaps even more than in most MSF projects, it’s really our locally-hired national staff who make possible the work we do. In a region with so many different languages and histories, none of us international staff would get much of anywhere in terms of productive work without relying very heavily on the local ‘national’ staff who are really the backbone of most MSF projects. I’ll have, further down, some shots that are fairly obviously work related; but throughout this section I hope you’ll enjoy the people and scenes of Manipur where I think MSF is doing such good work.

As I write this I’m in a lovely vacation rental in Provincetown, at the tip of Cape Cod. Even here, various folks I’ve chatted with talk with pride of how they support MSF. And well they should be proud — it’s the small donors who make it possible for us to work in places like Manipur. Ask yourself if you’d ever heard of Manipur before I went to work there; and ask yourself how Manipur ranks in the donor-awareness of most citizens of the world compared to, say, Haiti. Haiti certainly has great needs – and indeed MSF has been and remains heavily engaged there both pre- and post-January 2010. But it’s the millions of private donors around the world who allow MSF to look at a small isolated place like Manipur, and decide to try to respond to some unmet medical needs there in a way that both preserves life and restores dignity, and hopefully also helps support the government’s own provision of longer-term solutions than we alone can provide. It’s my strong belief that MSF and all our colleagues and donors should be proud of the work we do in Manipur. I’m off my high-horse – enjoy the pics.

…immediately above, and for a while below, are scenes from the main town parts of Churachandpur; yes, including the pig trying to get out of his sty, which was more in a neighborhood just behind where our main house and office were located.

…from fairly fancy houses and shops, to streetfront shops and pigstys, CCpur’s got it all…

Below is the view from our house, more precisely the view from the bathroom I used most days to shower and brush my teeth and so on. Not a bad view, huh? Quick review & explanation for those who don’t know: maybe 1/3 of Manipur’s total population is made up of people belonging to various hill tribes such as Gangte, Kuki, Miso, Naga, Paite, Vaiphei, Zou etc. (More than 40 recognized minorities make up the 2-1/2 million residents of Manipur.) Nearly all of the hill tribal folks were converted to Christianity by missionaries from the US and UK in the early 20th century – indeed, below you’ll see a festive arch commemorating the ‘gospel centenary,’ i.e. 100 years since those first missionaries introduced Christianity to that part of Manipur. Since we lived, and primarily worked, in Churachandpur and other hill tribal areas, we saw a lot of churches — and they make an interesting visual against the lovely mountains. The majority population in Manipur are the mainly valley-dwelling Meitei or Manipuris, who’ve been living in this little valley for something like 2000 years and have a long history of art and culture of which they are quite proud. The Meitei are about 80% (so I’ve been told) Hindu these days, having largely converted when a king led them to do so in the 18th century (I think); the remaining 20% or so mostly adhere to the Meitei or Manipuri indigenous religion, which existed before the conversion to Hinduism. There are some churches in the valley, but I don’t think many Meitei are Christian.

I seem inevitably to end up with many shots of clothes hung out to dry. Mostly it’s because there are always clothes hung out to dry somewhere; it’s also because clothes are colorful and interesting in a photo. It also helps me remind me of what we Americans should remember more: our problems with resources and oil in the gulf are of our own making. And the wars we fight are of our own making, because we greedily overconsume the world’s resources and then find we must fight wars to defend our access to those resources, and place our troops in places where they’re not welcome, just to defend our access to as many cars and clothes dryers as each of us feels we need. Yes, our decisions do have consequences, and yes, it’s very possible to live a happy and rich life without all the SUV’s and clothes dryers. Or oil in the gulf – for which don’t blame BP, look at your own consumption and wonder why companies do what they do and why congress gives companies so many free passes…

On a lighter note: below are some shots from the longest weekend hike that Par, Fiona and I did during my time: up and over a few large hills and around the trail you can see below. Also a shot of Par and me on the walk. This was, obviously, late in the dry season. Quite different from the verdant look during the rains, huh? BTW, in case clarification is necessary: we weird foreigners used these trails for recreation; for locals they’re how to get your produce to market and do your shopping trips.

Several friends commented on photos of the architecture in Manipur. Above is an excellent example of a good-looking completely traditional hill compound — thatched-reed or rush roof, construction of planks and mud and reeds. This compound shows great civic pride and good upkeep – it’s swept, the wood is neatly stacked, the roof rushes are new and fresh-looking — it’s all really lovely, isn’t it? Our new house in Sugnu, which I was fortunate to spend a few nights in before leaving, is of similar construction but painted a bright blue and with a (bloody loud in rain, but longer-lasting) tin roof; you’ll see it below. I can attest that these houses, while picturesque, are not so comfortable or weather-sound as brick or stone structures; it’s maybe like a midpoint between camping and a solid house with a basement. In any case: below are some examples of houses that haven’t been quite so well maintained, or that finally succumbed to the elements.

This one is woven bamboo with a tin roof. I think it’s got a gorgeous location and is a very atmospheric house.

The foot bridge and the deep-purple orchids are both from one of our favorite hike resting spots, by a little creek in a valley between two ridges that are both lovely and dramatic. The orchids are standing in for any number of other stunning orchids and other flowers I saw but didn’t photograph during my time…especially these bluey-lilac orchids that were hanging enchantingly from a number of trees sometime around October, but I never happened to have a camera handy any time I saw them.

Blankets, hung out to air and dry on a footbridge at the edge of CCpur town.

Above: while Par waits for me to catch up on one of our morning ‘hill and valley’ (our favorite route, really) runs, I took this photo of all the water ewers piled up by the village’s water spigot, waiting for the morning water run by all the locals fetching their washing and cooking water. Below, two locals doing just that…both likely wearing second-hand clothing that’s come from the US, but one more obviously so.

Up above is a photo I like because it shows how steep some of the terrain where folks do their farming is. Immediately above is another shot of the almost-scary sunset on the last night I spent in Sugnu, the new town where we were starting to work just as I was leaving. And below are a few shots more directly related to work. Just below is the clinic compound at Chakpikarong, a more remote town than CCpur where we started work shortly after I arrived; it, like many other health structures in the area, was not open and fully staffed with any regularity, and part of what we try to do is provide a regular schedule so that residents of remote villages (people were walking sometimes many hours to get to us) would know they could come to us reliably and get care. We also try to work in collaboration with staff  (medical, lab, etc.) assigned by the health department in order to support overall greater provision of care. Below this next shot, you’ll see a ‘Children’s Park’ in also in Chakpikarong, which I put in just by way of saying that it’s not only health structures that have been a bit abandoned and unmaintained during the years when various conflicts have so strongly affected life in Manipur. But as I said above, I think this is an area of which most of the world remains unaware; it’s certainly an area where no other INGO’s, so far s I know, have any regular on the ground presence. Another reason I’m proud of the work we do there. 🙂

Immediately above: first day we occupied our new house/office in Sugnu (it rained, heavily) and hired staff to watch the compound, clean/cook, and help us get acquainted with our new neighborhood and its various communities. A lot of people showed up, as you see, and it was quite a full day! Below, appropriately as the last shot in this set, me eating with some of our local colleagues at my farewell party.

Colleagues, Patients & Friends in Manipur

In the posts above, you’ve already seen many of the people who made my life in Manipur so rewarding — colleagues both national and international, patients and their families, neighbors and residents of the town we lived in and the town we worked in, and so on. For me the most humbling part of working with MSF in an area like Manipur is the welcome that MSF and our staff (both national and international) receive in the small towns and villages where we work. Most of the photos in this section were taken during the final couple weeks of my time in Manipur – in final visits to the clinics where we worked, during the handover with my replacement, and during my farewell party (that’s some colleagues singing at the farewell party which was also a family get-together, above). These big photos, and the gallery of images below, are a final thank you and ode to some of the many people I worked with and around during my months in Manipur.

This young patient at one of our clinics started out dubious about this weird balding guy who wanted to take his picture…

…but with encouragement from me and some of the mom’s sitting around (their shown below), he started to warm up…

…and finally let loose. 🙂

Below are the smiling adults who encouraged him. One of them might be his Mom but I’m not sure.

Magna Cum Confusion & Humor

Since beginning this MSF phase of my life, I’ve lived & worked in three regions which the British ruled as colonies for some period of time. Along with that British colonial history comes a greater familiarity with English among at least more educated people. English is a good lingua franca in Nigeria, whose people speak hundreds of tribal languages in their homes and families.  I think English is actually a bit less widespread in India because there are superpower regional languages like Hindi, Tamil, Bengali, etc. which are spoken by very large numbers of people. But India certainly has a group of highly-educated citizens whose English is often far more refined than mine. Then there are the unique forms English takes as it adapts to local needs and usages – I recall an article in Nigeria’s Punch newspaper about how unusual Nigerian English was becoming; so unusual that the editorial writer feared it was moving out of the mainstream of global English and becoming nearly incomprehensible to other English speakers. I don’t think Indian English runs that risk…but I did find some things to enjoy and to have a chuckle about. Or simply some very nice uses of the language. Herewith are some of my favorite signs and monuments, with a strong emphasis on the Indian penchant for using the latinate cum as a junction between two different parts of one whole. I and my colleagues sometimes found these signs rather humorous.

…and, directly across the street in the the center of Churachandpur Town:

I don’t want this post to disintegrate into a bad joke – though indeed Fiona & Marja & I got some great laughs out of the signs just above, and some others that you’ll see. The parts of Manipur that I frequented were big on commemorations and memorials, many of which were nicely made. At left and right are two stone memorials commemorating important anniveraries in local history. I’m hoping that these will all lay out, when finally up on screen, more or less as I’d been hoping. We’ll see – learning a new blog host is hard!

India’s Tip – Kanyakumari & Padmanabaphuram

Editor’s note: my blog host has become stupid and made it impossible to blog as I’ve been doing for more than five years. This has made three of the four posts I put up for Kerala invisible to most readers. I’m fixing this now by acting like I posted some of them in different months, later. I’ll fix this more permanently, some time soon I hope, by changing the host of my blog. Suggestions on this topic are most welcome. For now, look at the “previous posts” listing on the right-hand side of the main page, and scan past posts, in order from top to bottom, or you may miss things… Sorry!

Padmanabaphuram Palace, above and farther below, was home to the kings of Travancore, straddling modern-day southern Kerala and bits of Tamil Nadu. It’s the most exquisite example of traditional Keralan architecture still standing. Below, and then even further below, are shots of sunrise and sunset at Kanyakumari at India’s southernmost tip.

Open doors between train cars could be a dangerous enticement. Ever an adrenaline junkie, I’m tempted most on the bridges suspended over a wide, shallow river with banks of deep red soil: so tempting to make the leap and join all those kids down below playing and bathing, adults doing their ablutions and women washing laundry. Barring that, simply to sit in the doorway, hand wrapped around the nearest fixed object and to lean my head into the onrushing wind like a dog on the highway to scan the red-dirt villages, coconut & banana groves, trails full of kids on bikes and adults carrying loads on their heads or backs, is far more enticing than the dark and cool of my 3rd A/C coach seat through that other door to my right. But at least this way I’ve a retreat for when the heat overtakes me or the rushing wind dries my eyes…or when we’re stopped in station and the urine stench from those who couldn’t wait for the long station-stop to end before responding to nature’s call overwhelms my tender nostrils.

The four-hour journey from Varkala south to Kanyakumari takes me through Thiruvanatapuram, Kerala’s second city & seat of government, and past the tourist haven of Kovalam to its south, onward to India’s tip where three oceans meet: Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean & Bay of Bengal; waters especially holy to Hindu devotees of the virgin goddess Kumari. I’ve been in flatlands since I landed at Kochi a week earlier – much of the backwaters is below sea level, prone to flooding when the monsoon is heavy and vibrantly, endlessly green even now, several months into the dry season. As tthe rain follows the continent’s curve eastward to join the subcontinent’s east coast curving down to the narrow tip, I notice that our inward, eastward curve brings the southern reaches of the Ghats, mountains whose name I’ve read but never before seen, within range of my curious and questing eye. Strangely, after the verdant aqueous landscapes I’ve been surrounded by for weeks, my firs view of these southern outposts of the Ghats calls me back to the desert of southern New Mexico and the Organ Mountains between Las Cruces and Alamogordo, so named because their sculpted vertical rock faces are reminiscent of an organ’s pipes.

The British, in their wisdom, decided that Kanyakumari – like many Indian locations – needed a name easier for their palates and brains to keep track of. So they called it Cape Comorin. Personally I find Kanyakumari far more flavorful, and it carries with it the name of the virgin goddess Kumari who did her penance here in order to marry Shiva (I’m fairly sure he’s another avatar of Krishna, but who could possibly keep track of all these deities and their avatars?), only to be told by the powers-that-be that she should remain virginal ‘in order to save the world,’ so saith my guidebook. Interesting notion, that. In any case: Kanyakumari is a gorgeously situated little town where the east coast and west coast of India meet in a tip pointing south, where three oceans come together and create water even more special than most rivers and seacoasts in India. Thus come the pilgrims to bathe at sunrise and sunset, thus come the sick and lame in hopes of cure; thus come the groups of schoolkids to scream with joy at the sun’s rise and set each day. The atmosphere at sunrise and sunset here, each day, is a combination fourth-of-july, carnival, and Indian temple, all to the accompaniment of pounding waves, vendors hocking tea or decorated seashells or chile-spiced pineapple slices.

These particular schoolgirls were quite determined to impress the sun, their teachers, or perhaps the schoolboys clumped in their own groups with the conviction and determination of their screams in honor of the rising sun.

The big statue represents Tiruvalluvar, apparently one of the great Tamil poets. To the left is the temple to Kumari (I think), and somewhere in there is a memorial to Mahatma Gandhi, where his ashes were kept after death until immersion. I was lazy by this point in my vacation so I only really got out to see the sun go up and down, and didn’t do much else.

Views of Two Varkalas

Editor’s note: my blog host has become stupid and made it impossible to blog as I’ve been doing for more than five years. This has made three of the four posts I put up for Kerala invisible to most readers. I’m fixing this now by acting like I posted some of them in different months, later. I’ll fix this more permanently, some time soon I hope, by changing the host of my blog. Suggestions on this topic are most welcome. For now, look at the “previous posts” listing on the right-hand side of the main page, and scan past posts, in order from top to bottom, or you may miss things… Sorry!

There are two Varkalas. There’s the internationally-popular beach resort where pale-skinned (or lobster-skinned, depending how well they applied their sun screen), imported men and women wearing far less than any decent Indian would be caught dead in wander the cliffside path past trinket stores, Tibetan-prayer-flag stores, and restaurants with names like “Clafouti” and “Cafe del Mar,” nearly all of which specialize (their own word) in most cuisines known to modern man — North & South Indian, Chinese, Italian, Continental, Thai…basically, you name it you get it. Except Mexican. Didn’t find that, even at Cafe del Mar. [Sad Face.] Then there’s the ancient temple town to which pilgrims come to pay homage to Krisha at the 2,000-year-old Janardhana Swamy Temple, a place pure enough of practice that non-Hindus are normally not permitted entry; the town like many Indian beach and river towns where sunrise rites and blessings are conducted by the religious and their teachers at water’s edge. In Varkala, this means the beach has two distinct shifts: the sunrise shift of worshipers and purifying bathers (always quite clothed: religious Indians don’t strip down too much before entering the water, and are NOT thinking about their tan lines) plus the occasional early-rising Euro-American meditator, jogger, or beach-comber (often most incongruous in shorts and sports bra passing through the wafts of incense and chanted prayers). Once the sun’s fully up and prepared to burn those tanlines deep into backs and waists, out parade the Euro-chic in their gauzy wraps over thongs, madras shirts over speedos, straw hats with hair tied back in ponytail (unisex styling, that), books and frisbee in hand. Ne’er do the two groups, the two Varkalas, seem to really meet or interact. It’s rather remarkable, and all most beautiful and fascinating. And I do have tanlines again…

I couldn’t help putting both these photos up – the blurred and the unblurred: it was quite unintentional but when I looked at them I rather liked the one where my hand moved.

Above: temple zone on a festival day; below: morning religious shift at the beach.

Cruising Kerala’s Backwaters

March 1 is Holi, here in India. A week ago smw, slt was finishing up week+ exploration of central and southern Kerala, plus a dip into southernmost Tamil Nadu. Now we’re working to get these photos posted so that we can get back to working, holiday notwithstanding, on the presentation for our next management meeting in Delhi, to which I’ll fly tomorrow. My time in India is beginning to wind down more and more rapidly, so I’m glad I had the quiet and contemplation of these days alone to explore a corner of India I’ve long dreamed of. The texts are something new – extracts from my journals, in which I wrote a bit more avidly than I usually do even on vacation. Let me know what you think.

The heart of my week in Kerala was four days at a hotel then a houseboat in the backwaters, a large network of rivers and canals a bit inland from the ocean in central Kerala. One of the more peaceful times I’ve spent.

This is the backwater equivalent of the school bus.

I think this is the backwater equivalent of running the daily errands.

The backwaters are highway, swimming pool, bathtub, tourist attraction, supermarket for herons & egrets & cormorants, seagulls & terns and other water birds; source of income and food for thousands of fishing families…and, above all in my eyes and ears this morning, launderette. Keralan women (plus the occasional man) can be heard and seen punishing the dirt and sweat, drips and dribbles of coconut juice and chutney, grass stains and just plain dirt out of their families’ clothes up and down the length and breadth of every canal and river throughout this vast network of water. That the clothes survive the merciless slapping out of all these stains and dirt must testify to the quality fo Kerala’s spinners and weavers. Many a shirt I’ve worn would dissolve to shreds at such treatment. A woman dunks the offending garment deep under the tepid green water, pulls it out, lathers it with a bar of soap, swings it high above her head in a one-armed lasso motion, then — THWACK! — whips it down on the nearest flat rock, with the fury of one to whom cleanliness truly must be close to godliness…and who has every intention of achieving for herself and her family’s clothing, at least, both states. Lather, rinse, repeat thwack, all along the highways and byways of this watery world.

So here I am at dawn on the backwaters of Kerala, watching herons and egrets do their breakfast dives and stabs into the water. A few of the more intriguing songbirds are still calling to each other, but mostly the sounds are crows, a loudspeaker reaching across the water from a nearby temple, and the occasional horn trilling from an unseen road. (And many Indian horns do trill, multi-note melodies that go into an echo-fade thing for a few seconds – so much more Indian in ethos than the stolid northern-European, Anglo-American, single-note horns that just thrust themselves into the audioscape and then as suddenly retire. I’m called momentary to a reverie of LA’s highways packed with colorfully-decorated Indian-style vehicles, all blaring their horns in a cacaphony of receding trills…certainly more interesting than the standard-issue LA rush-hour traffic jam.) There’s the occasional electric-blue flash of wings skimming the water’s surface, which I assume is the kingfisher, so fleeting and elusive that I’ve never captured it on camera. So startlingly, dazzlingly blue in this green world that I wonder if I’ve imagined it, until it happens again. I lie on my bench seat, head turned so I can gaze out on the watery highway extending in front of the boat and listen to clothes thwack on rocks, watch white egrets & black cormorants & the occasional electric-blue kingfisher feast on the fish smorgasbord beneath me.

My brother (one of them) informs me that, in removing myself from the shores of my native land, by placing myself in this self-imposed virtual exile where the world is my oyster but no place is my home, I have reduced my odds of ever meeting Mr Right to 0:0. His logic is well-presented: hard to date anyone local since I’ll always be leaving at some point, plus there are usually reporting relationships and work complications, and meeting Joe Citizen can be a real challenge most of the time anyway, at least in a neutral non-work way…after all, I kind of stand out as one of a dozen or so foreigners in the entire state. Then there’s the fact that most of the places I work now have cultures that tend, to a greater or lesser extent, to be even more opposed than my southern-Ohio birthplace to the queer manner in which my search for affection expresses itself.

It’s true that five years of doing this work have led me nowhere romantically, though the stories I can now tell when back in places where I blend in a bit better do seem to gain me more attention at parties and among those types I tend to admire most, than my suit & tie business self used to. However, I did make a decision after eight years of equally sparse success in the malls, dance clubs and tennis courts of LA and SF, that hunting the ideal mate there was rather like a seeking a tropical fish on dry land: the people drawn to the shopping malls and nightclubs of the world are birds of a different feather than me. So now I at least do work that interests and truly challenges me, in new ways and different ways that I hope do more than contribute only to the bottom line of the two fairly addled entrepreneurs for whom I was, before I left LA, working.

I figure this way, if I end my days single I’ll at least have some good stories to tell and a higher ratio of job satisfaction than many of us do. The alternative, hanging in dull jobs and silly dating events that add little newness to my life, seemed to promise an endless cycle of diminishing-return jobs and first dates that never really lifted off the ground of their clumsy first greetings. I am still largely an optimist, but I have realized that if corporations can rise and fall on the fortunes of movies and books and magazines that tell stories and offer advice to help women in their search for the right man…well if that standard-issue search is difficult enough of success to spawn the industries it’s spawned, then how much more difficult of success is my own, and should I really put the rest of my life on hold while clinging to what optimism remains to me?

My point being: here I am, a lone passenger exploring life, at the moment from the prow of a small houseboat in Kerala, and it seems such a terrible waste that there’s no one here to share it with me. House-boating on the Keralan backwaters joins Paul’s endlessly-growing list of things to do with a boyfriend if he ever meets one; right up there with ‘weekend at Big Sur’ or ‘vacation in Provincetown.’ If I’ve learned anything it’s that we’re really all the same in the end, and though the surroundings may change, a human being wants connection, respect and a place to feel at home. And for now I’ve got wading and flying waterbirds to watch, hundreds of miles of canals and backwaters to occupy my imagination, and apparently some idli (google it) on the way for breakfast. It’s not at all a bad position, all things considered.

Above: street scene in Kottayam, northeasternmost corner of the backwaters and site of Arundhati Roy’s celebrated book, God of Small Things. Below: it’s not Long Beach…it’s Queen Mary of the Backwaters.

Above & below: my guesthouse in Kumarakom (Keralan architecture is really quite lovely – as seen especially below, in the photos of Padmanabaphuram Palace), and farther down, the crew of my little houseboat.

Arriving in Kochi

Editor’s note: my blog host has become stupid and made it impossible to blog as I’ve been doing for more than five years. This has made three of the four posts I put up for Kerala invisible to most readers. I’m fixing this now by acting like I posted some of them in different months, though indeed they were all created on 1st March 2010. I’ll fix this more permanently, some time soon I hope, by changing the host of my blog. Suggestions on this topic are most welcome. For now, look at the “previous posts” listing on the right-hand side of the main page, and scan past posts, in order from top to bottom, or you may miss things… Sorry!

We soar above dense layers and palaces, columns and turrets and tufts of cloud so dense and fantastical that the guy in the middle seat, to my left, grabs his cell phone and leans over me – elbow dug painfully into my rib with only minimal nod of apology – to digitally record the wonder. Here above the clouds, the increasingly tropical sun shines so brightly that I’ve shed a layer, and turned the air vent on high. I’m still hot enough to find inconceivable that six hours ago I needed the room heater upon emerging from the morning’s shower in Delhi. Once the plane cuts down into the cloud palaces, I pop the outer shirt back on, unbuttoned.

Fort Kochi, aka Cochin, is home to an active harbor and fishing water front, the oldest church in India (I think – see side view below with kids playing cricket) and no dearth of other christian symbols & buildings, the oldest synagogue in India and the small remnants of a Jewish community whose ancestors came here after the destruction of the (2nd?) temple in Jerusalem a few thousand years ago, and a lot of cool & atmospheric houses, streets and waterfronts.

Plunging through the clouds, a definable landscape emerges for the first time since brief reflections of sun on water somewhere over Karnataka or Maharashtra. Closing in on ground level, the seemingly omnipresent carpet of trees resolves itself into dense, endless stands of coconut palms. From the runway, and again from the car driving south to town, the setting sun hangs as an equatorially enormous, red ball glaring at us through the dense haze of cloud at the horizon; so dense is the haze that I can stare directly at the setting sun’s enormous clock face without shielding my eyes at all. It’s a remarkable color, neither red nor yet orange, not fuchsia or pink. Rather like the most vivid and rich color on the top of a ripe summer peach where it shades from orange over to red near the stem, only far deeper and nearly fluorescent. The thick haze that veils the sun and yields this color is quite flat and undifferentiated, except a wispy strand like a dark birthmark reaching into the orb at 7 o’clock.

…can someone explain why a place with enough of its own ancient history to fill a library would tart itself up like an outpost of Baja California? The tourists weren’t buying it, either…

Back in the office last week I paused to look over the old, fading color photos taped to the gunmetal-grey doors of the cluttered IT equipment cabinet. In one photo four white MSF Mahindra 4×4’s are parked elegantly by the side of a flat, paved, unpotholed, divided, four-lane highway complete with paved shoulder. Asking where the photos was – since it couldn’t be Manipur, which has no divided roads or highways aside from a few blocks in Imphal – I learned it was when our four new vehicles drove overland from mainland India to reach our project a few years back. So all these rhapsodies about the sun, the palm trees, and the apparent – to my mind – similarities to Sri Lanka (meaning: this place looks and feels more like that than anything else I’ve seen before; certainly more than the brush-covered tribal hills of Manipur) happen at the same time as my mind tries to calculate how much wealthier and more developed Kerala must be than Manipur. Howard & Gene rapidly tired of my rhapsodizing about the flat, smooth and wide roads of Rajasthan, last November. But here, not only are roads smooth and flat; they’re divided four lane highways! And most drivers stick to the two lanes per side, unlike Delhi where they’d squeeze a good four or five cars into the same width…plus a bus for good measure…

And billboard after billboard after billboard! I’m surprised to realize how rare billboards have become in my life. The entire 40km of road from airport to hotel tell me that Kochi seems to have more jewelers per capita than any place I’ve ever lived, including NYC. Kochi, according to one billboard, even seems to boast the world’s most popular jewelry store…though there’s no visible citation for that claim. Not since I shed responsibility for laying out the pages of Town & Country magazine have I seen such an assembly of jewelry advertisements in one place. I am clearly not in Manipur any more, and I feel rather like a bumpkin to be honest. After all, a place where a 5-year-old biking home from school last fall was murdered apparently for the small golden earrings normally worn by Meitei children & youths is unlikely to boast such ability to sell fine jewelry.

Little Things

Happy holidays, friends. Here in Lamka it’s a sunny and cold Christmas morning; fresh cinnamon rolls have popped out of the toaster oven now and I’m enjoying a quiet morning with tea and roll before the rest of the house awakes. Spread all around the table here in the living room are the spoils of my glorious christmas which will be happily shared with my colleagues. This embarrassment of riches – chocolate to last us all well into the new year, books to kick start MSF library into the new year and to occupy my free time easily until the end of this assigment, and DVD’s of BSG that’ll allow us all to huddle in front of the charcoal brazier by the TV on the coldest nights – is courtesy of the unstinting generosity of both Steves, Angela & of course Howard and Gene, whose early presents arrived with them for our November vacation. I could never thank you all enough, truly. What I offer, for now, are glimpses of the trails and hills, colleagues and villagers, that fill my life here. Happy holidays, and let’s get 2010 off to a promising start, shall we?

It’s dry season here in Lamka and they’re prepping some road beds for paving, or at least building up the gravel and dirt that cover some of the roads. Out for a run with Fiona I saw again one of my favorite neighborhood sights: a few 10-something kids dragging an obviously hand-made wooden cart (handmade wooden wheels and all — didn’t get a close enough look to see if there were metal axels but I suspect not) bumping by with jerry-cans of water sloshing around inside. (Interpretation: these folks are poor enough that they lug their own water, and poor enough that it’s better to build their own wheelbarrow rather than buy one commercially. Welcome to Lamka.) A couple days earlier, on another of our beloved weekend hill walks, I’d landed dramatically on my bum after jumping a ditch by a field where some kids were playing cricket. (Rare, that: first time I’ve seen cricket here, where the fields are about 99% given over to soccer usually; another indicator we’re culturally in southeast, more than south, Asia.) As though choreographed, the second I took my spill, every one of the kids burst out in uproarious laughter that was light-hearted and funny, not at all teasing or mean. They just found the sight of this bearded weird foreigner going down on his butt extremely amusing. The looks we get on our hikes tell us clearly enough that simply the idea of walking for fun is odd enough as it is — if one has the luxury of free time, one ought to use it to rest from one’s labors, not to take on new ones! Or at least to engage in some normal entertainment such as soccer! What’s with all this walking-through-the-hills business???

…above & below: now you know where those used clothes that you drop in bins end up: I assume they get sold to aggregators who then ship them out to a place like Lamka, where they fill many a shop.

Walking on (and taking one of these photos timed just to when the littlest of the kids was doing one of the dozens of cartwheels he did as I watched – a skill I suspect he’s learned only recently…), I commented to Fiona and Marja that this was a thing many Americans would not understand. These are folks many of whom live, literally, in wattle and daub huts (look closely at some of the photos and understand that these are typical, not unusual) crowded many to a room. These are folks who all walk a ways every morning, afternoon and evening to the nearest spigot and fill those large aluminum water carriers you see in a few of these pictures, for cooking cleaning & personal hygiene…and trust me when I say this water would not pass US FDA standards.

…those are the kids in question; click on the photo and you’ll see the cartwheeler more clearly.

These are folks who, if they have electricity at all, have it only during those rare and unpredictably intermittent hours when there’s actually power coming over the city lines. I said to Marja and Fiona, ‘I’m not sure that most Americans understand, or believe, that it’s possible to be so simply and gleefully happy when one lives in this kind of setting with so few of the comforts and luxuries that we take for granted.’ Part of me thought it was hyperbole on my part, but I really wonder. When I consider the horror – truly! – with which so many of my friends from LA and elsewhere have greeted the concept even of just backpacking or camping, for a few days and a change of pace, in a place lacking a hair drier and streaming internet…well, I just really wonder whether these Americans would know how to locate and experience joy here. And that makes me sad. Again and again I hear friends from the US long for more connection to community, better links with family and the world around them. But again and again I see them go on shopping sprees and sit for hours in front of the TV or the computer instead of getting up, giving up the luxury, and getting out and about to meet and greet the world.

…I can never see a chicken strolling around without thinking of how Steve jumped out of the way in fear of bird flue, any time he saw one when he visited me in China four years ago…

Readers of this blog and friends who’ve corresponded with me lately know I’ve been tired – I’ve been working hard, it’s the cold season here in Lamka and with no indoor heating I do tend get a bit tired after a day huddled around a charcoal brazier. Perhaps I’ve not put out there quite enough of why I do this, all the things I do love not only about my work but about the opportunity to be reminded that the luxury I know awaits me back in the US is not necessary — it’s pleasant, it’s luxurious, but it can also be a trap. I plan to spend most of 2010 enjoying my family and friends back home, enjoying the lovely home I helped my Mom make for herself this year.

Just about this time a decade ago, as 1999 waned to 2000 and those in the know insisted that the new milennium didn’t really begin until 2001, I was at the peak of my last career, in publishing. I’d owned my lovely new house in Long Beach for a mere seven months and my mother came to celebrate the turn of the year and my first Christmas at my new home. Through those sunny southern California holidays, builders were tiling and redoing the pool behind my house, installing solar paneling to keep the pool warm on those cool coastal California summer evenings, the house had bee nicely earthquake retrofitted…and I wondered how I’d make good my escape from that life. Much as I enjoyed – and truly I did – the wine & cheese evening I had with my mom and some friends to celebrate the new year, proud as I was of the turtle and fish tiles I’d chosen to decorate the newly refinished pool (and truly I was), I just saw publishing in an unstoppable decline and frankly knew I’d learned what I needed from the career anyway and was ready for work that would do as much to connect me to world as to fill my bank account. But I had, of course, no idea how to make the shift from well-paid corporate executive to under-paid humanitarian worker. What the US likes to call the ‘non-profit’ sector tends, there at least, to frown upon those with business backgrounds on the assumption that we can’t make the transition well from a cash bottom line to a social or humanitarian bottom line…or from a larger paycheck to a much smaller one. I think if more American were willing to reaxmine their goals and hopes, it could happen. I’m certainly happy it’s happened for me, and I look forward to connecting with all of you again on an extended down time in the US in 2010. Happy holidays & new year, everyone!

…if you’ve googled Manipur, you’ve read about Loktak Lake. Le voila, above and below.


Above & below: watching the friendly football (soccer) match between MSF and Shalom, the local community care center that we work closely with…and village scenes around the soccer field or football pitch.

…Above: one of my favorite kids (an AIDS orphan) at the local NGO that houses patients who’ve come to town for ART treatment, many from Myanmar; and below, the pre-wedding send-off ceremony for a colleague.