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

Udaipur: Palaces by the Lake

City Palace & Lake

smw, slt has taken a break from work in Manipur to visit several of India’s justly famous tourist towns and monuments on an extended vacation to Rajasthan and the Uttar Pradesh cities of Agra and Fatehpur Sikri, which with Delhi served as capitals for the six Mughal emperors. Being out and about in this enormous country with its vast and rich history and cultural variety has humbled me with reminders of … well, how much world there really is and how little time one has to appreciate it. You’ll see how captivated I was by the landscapes, the monuments and the people we’ve seen as we traveled around; and you’ll read (if you choose) how I’ve been reminded of earlier trips through another great Asian nation with rich culture and history. Right now I’m feeling small and grateful for the chance see and share some of this – reminded of my grandmother’s trip to India and how flabbergasted she was by the Taj herself, back in the late 1970s. And still a bit boggled that I myself have had such an opportunity of which I only dreamed back when I was skipping stones with my brothers on Seven-Mile Creek during the long summer vacations. Ah well, as you may also read, my aging bones and brain are also feeling a bit tired and wonder how soon I’ll decide to retire and drop my passport into a drawer to be forgotten for a couple decades. Time will tell, I suppose. In the meantime I do hope you’ll enjoy the photos and forgive me their great abundance.

…Udaipur, among those familiar with Indian history, is probably best known as the last holdout of the Rajputs against both the Mughals and the British. After losing their original home fort at Chittor a few too many times to invading Mughals, Udai heard a voice in the desert – well, some sort of prophetic voice – that told him he and his people would be safe if he built them a fort and a palace here. So he did, and as best I can read the history, this holdout of Rajput strength never fell to the Mughals. (Surprisingly difficult to track one’s way through the various historical summaries in different travel guides, and I admit I’ve not gone back and read an Indian history book since, well, since Reagan was president.

…be that as it may, Udai and his descendants built about handful of palaces in what is now the absolutely sprawling City Palace compound. Feeling those half-dozen palaces weren’t quite enough, they built another two out in the middle of the manmade lake they’d created — the most famous being the white Lake Palace, now the exclusivest of exclusive hotels (Udai’s descendants now operate a couple dozen hotels out of various of their palaces, while living themselves in one or two of the others), which featured quite prominently in the rather enchantingly named James Bond film Octopussy.
In any case, one or two of these palaces are now given over to the City Palace Museum, recounting the history of the Mewar Dynasty (Udai and his children). The artistic centerpiece is he Peacock Court, featuring three absolutely spectactular tile peacocks. Classic example of the beauty that can emerge from dreadully inequal social systems…I just hope the remarkable artists who created these got a reasonable day’s wage for doing so.

One thing that moderately confused me but also confirmed my inner-feminist’s suspicion that misogyny is universal, regardless of one’s religion or philosophical underpinnings: the Rajputs, Hindu believers who proudly resisted Mughal influence, adopted with great alacrity the purdah system of hiding ‘their’ women away from the outside world, behind zenana screens in the women’s quarters. Lots of commentaries on how the purdah screens were so set up as to make it very possible for women to observe the happenings in court from behind the screen while being well protected from roving eyes themselves. Whatever. The screens can be quite lovely, gotta admit.

…what DID we do for dinner plans before they littered the landscape with mobile phone towers?

…two MSFers talking about generator schedules, even on their vacation. Sad but true.

They call Udaipur the most romantic city in India, I think; I can’t comment on that, but it’s certainly got interesting twisty streets and lovely buildings aplenty, wound around the lakes and hills. The alleyway and house-painting below were jokingly referred to by Howard as the most-photographed alley in Udaipur, since I was far from the only tourist taking a photo.

We stayed in the ‘Royal Retreat’ at Shikarbadi (one of the few dozen above-mentioned former palaces plus a hunting lodge, aka Shikarbadi Hotel, or two) for the glorious four days in Udaipur. H&G took great pleasure in getting out and about for more temples and sites; I took great pleasure in the hills, wetlands, deer and birds while being a vegetable in the hotel room and grounds. Having been influenced by a Frank Zappa fan in my youth (that’s you, Jens), I couldn’t help thinking of it as the Sheikh Yerbouti hotel. Hehe.

…since Shikarbadi is well south of the city, tucked into the hills below the lake, they seem to do special breakfasts for tour groups to give tourists an idea of the royal lifestyle with hunting lodges in the hills, and…well, literally, the red-carpet treatment. The low-slung building by the slough, above, contained our room and had a deer park on the other side from the slough.

Welcome to Jaisalmer: Havelis & A Golden Fort

In the fort at Kumbalh Garh, I heard again the soft swish of a camel’s feet across the ground, and got to share it with Howard to whom I’d been describing it as we saw wild or feral camels wandering the desert from our car as we traversed the desert from Jodhpur to Osian to Jaisalmer and back again, then down to Kumbalgarh en route to Udaipur. Accustomed to the sharp clippety-clop of horses’ hooves — or, in India, of the myriad cows around whom we’ve wended our way through the streets of all those towns — this sound brought me up short the first time I heard it, several years ago in a very different place. Here by the Great Thar Desert, near where the tides of history and colonialism sliced a tense and bloody new international border back in 1947, it’s more than just the camel’s swish that takes me back to those days at the edge of another great desert far to the north.

I’d never heard the camel’s swish until I was walking back to my little guest house by the banks of the Yellow River in Zhong Wei, in Ningxia near Inner Mongolia where the red dunes of the Tengger Desert meet irrigated fields and a minor tourist attraction that mixes riding the dunes (sled, camel, you name it) with riding the river (raft) plus the usual range of Chinese tourist kitsch. That particular trip was my first vacation in this MSF life – a lovely, lonely exploration of remote zones at the fringe of Mongolia’s desert, and Tibet’s roof-of-the-world Plateau (in southwestern Gansu). It feels long ago and far away, but those swishing feet took me right back in a heartbeat to how enchanted I was, as the line of riding camels being led back to their stables swished past me along the asphalt road that walked me slowly home to my bed for the night after a hot day of wandering in the desert and enjoying the big sky.

Though I’ve flown over the Sahara a few times, and driven through parts of the Sonoran Desert en route from Ohio to LA a few years ago, this is the first time I’ve really spent any quality desert time since my sojourn in the sands of the Tengger. It feels right for this to be my first vacation during my time in India — I work about as far east as you can get in India, and now I’m vacationing about as far west as you can get; I’ve left an area few people from outside (and some inside) don’t even know IS part of India, and come to towns that utterly epitomize the idea of romantic, royal, historic India. As you see in these photos, we’ve seen everything from desert forts to city palaces, from little Jain temples to the most famous tomb of all time.

But for some reason I suspect these aren’t the images that will evoke my own memories years from now. I think – I hope – that those will be the more life-sized memories, like the camel’s swish. Already I think of the rows of women and men on the winding back roads we drove through the Aravalli Hills balancing enormously outsized bundles of dried stalks (corn stalks? I think?) on their heads — though obviously light since they were dried stalks of a lovely tan color, standing out nicely against the often colorful saris of the women and turbans of the men, these bundles were really quite enormous, perched there on people’s heads. Since all we did was drive past dozens of such pedestrians as we rattled along the bumpy hill roads from Jodhpur to Udaipur, I never had a chance to take any photos but I suspect the images will linger. Or the round earthen huts with conical roofs of branches and thatch, dotted around the Thar Desert countryside before Jaisalmer — usually with a few scattered camels munching from trees (you never imagined that camels can look almost like giraffes when they eat chew on a tree, did you?) as well. Repeated swerving to avoid not only jillions of motorbikes and motorcoaches and cows crossing, but camels as well. These and other impressions – dusty dryness, bumpy roads, dodging cow pies on the streets of every town we’ve walked through, fending off touts and endless streams of children who wanted nothing more than to repeat hello and ask ‘where you from?’ a few million times as we wandered the back streets of Old Jaisalmer below the fort…these images will have to live in my memory since most of my photos were devoted to the more typically touristic and photogenic themes.

I needed this break from my work in Manipur. For all kinds of reasons, I really don’t like to talk shop here on the blog. (But if you’re in the US and interested in understanding more about what we do here in the field, by all means go soon to www.doctorswithoutborders.org/livinginemergency for a film about our work.) But work is, after all, just about the only thing I do when I’m back in Manipur; and as I’ve said to many colleagues and friends over the years, we don’t go somewhere to provide medical care because it’s so easy everyone else is doing it and we just had to join the rush. As it were. BTW the 2008 activity report for India features a b/w photo from one of our clinics at the top, and talks about our clinical work in Manipur, though it’s already outdated since we started working in a fifth location during September. Link is

My first three months of work at Manipur have likely been the most tangibly productive work months I’ve ever logged (even stretching back to the hardest days of my business career), and I’m very proud of the work we’re doing, of the fantastic team and colleagues we have, of the support we receive from the many communities with which we work. I think I’ve worked harder and more intensely than ever before during these months, and I suspect I’ve had some depression side effects from the malaria prophylaxis I was taking for a few months. I was really pretty darn exhausted, and if I’m honest with myself I’ve often thought a nice quiet job waiting tables in some lovely seaside joint in coastal California sounds like a nice change of pace. I also have a sneaking suspicion I might have rushed into this work a bit more rapidly, after completing the work with Mom’s house, than I really ought to have. Oh well, done’s done and it’s a great thing I’ve been able to take nearly two weeks as a break from the daily work in Lamka. I’ve written this note on a rare rainy November morning (there’s a cyclone that just missed Mumbai and has brought unseasonal but welcome rain to southern Rajasthan) in Udaipur, while Howard & Gene have done a four-hour roundtrip drive to another palace south of town. Given the time I spend bumping over remote roads in my work life, somehow the chance to hang out in this lovely hotel retreat in the hills south of town (photos at the end of the Udaipur section) struck me as a special chance to unwind further before my return to work. I hope you enjoy the photos. As always, drop a line if you’d like. Peace.

…Gene likes his guidebooks. Howard likes his temples.

Howard does the shoe-dance after visiting the Fort’s Jain temples.

Gene at the gate to the fort complex.

Never saw camels as haulers before…

…cows are quite omnipresent on the streets of Rajasthan, but every now and then one finds a juxtaposition that quite captures the imagination.

…wouldn’t that be the coolest window seat in which to lounge with some pillows and a cold drink? The royal life must have been sweet. The pics above and below are a mix from the fort & palace, and the havelis and streets of the town below the fort.

Friendly architecture students whom we met at the Patwon ki Haveli, one of many simply stunning merchants’ houses built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the city the developed around the base of the fort.

Jaisalmer’s fort, unique for being the only still-inhabited and active fort in India, is quite the popular destination for domestic tourism.

…above: camel at rest in a random courtyard up in the fort at Jaisalmer; below: waterspout in fantastic shape within Jain temple; further below: the white statue is one of the 24 Jain prophets, about whom you can read more in the Osian section down below.

Kumbalgarh: The Camel’s Swish

Kumbalh Garh (fort at Kumbalh is what it means) sits high up above rows of ramparts in the hills north of Udaipur. It’s not one of the top forts of Rajasthan, but it’s certainly quite impressive. There’s a story in why we saw it: as we departed Jodhpur for Udaipur in the morning, Gene mentioned to our driver the temples Rankapur, which we were to see that day according to the schedule. He hadn’t checked the schedule, our driver, so was unaware of Ranakpar and what are supposed to be stupendous white-marble Jain temples that are pretty much tops in their category for Rajasthan. As we drove ever further and saw signs that Udaipur was ever closer, we asked again about Ranakpur and got unclear answers. Finally, certain that we were past Ranakpur and nearly to Udaipur, with dusk in the foreseeable future (one doesn’t drive most roads after dark in the Indian countryside), we asked again and finally got the car turned around…only to be brought to Kumbalhgarh, which we decided must have been our consolation prize: backtracking to Ranakpur, by then, would have meant arriving far too late in Udaipur, so we got a lovely and atmospheric fort instead. Oh well: next time for Ranakpur.

Elephants as beasts of war, above & below.

…the huge, snaky ramparts and how they dwarf any people around them really grabbed me.

Marvelous Mehrengarh & The Blue City

At the center of the modern state of Rajasthan, on the eastern edge of the Great Thar Desert, lies Mehrengarh Fort surrounded by the blue city within the outer walls. Our travel books were quite correct when they told us that the Fort is magnificent – rising high above the surrounding city and plain, a beautiful and impenetrable fort that never once fell to an enemy army during centuries of Rajput fighting outsiders, and Rajput fighting Rajput. Sadly, after taking the first photo you see above, the battery in my camera died. I did borrow one of Gene & Howard’s cameras and seem to recall taking jillions of photos of the opulent and beautifully-decorated rooms and battelements throughout the palace. At the very end, Gene ensured I had their cameras to take photos, but by then my camera complication at Jodhpur had faded into the past after all those gorgeous experiences in Jaisalmer and Udaipur that you’ve been seeing…and so I only took those shots of myself or us that looked good: e.g. Howard and me by the art-exhibit poster below.

Oh well: take it as stated that the interior of the fort & palace is as impressive and beautiful as the exterior. And enjoy the shots that I took on an afternoon return trip, post-Jaisalmer, of the battlements and gardens at Mehrengarh. Though they already had the spectacular Fort, this particular royal family decided to build themselves an even more opulent and sumptuous palace called Umaid Bhavan – no military fort, this confection built in the 1930s as a ‘public works program’ for the waning days of British colonial rule in India. This is the palace I mentioned in my comments up above about the tension in my own mind between the beauty of these buildings and their history, and the enormous social inequality and maldistribution of resources that they represent. It’s good for Americans to be reminded that, in this epoch on the global scale, we’re the modern equivalent of these Rajahs building themselves pleasure palaces while the poor are starving. Not a sustainable system, my friends.

…that’s the above-mentioned, offending but opulently gorgeous Umaid Bhavan Palace; and yeah, the aim of the cannon below rather represents my feelings about such spending, beautfiul as it is, when I know there were folks starving and dying needlessly of disease. Further down (and some above as well, flora and fauna – the hanuman langur, a black-faced and playful primate whose relatives I first met in bouncing around on the roof of my hotel in Sri Lanka years ago – of the gardens & pleasure palace, a delightful oasis down below Mehrengarh, from which many of the looking-up-with-flowers-in-the-frame pictures were shot.

…every now and then my Ohio-boy roots show up despite the many voyages I’ve undertaken since those days on the banks of seven-mile creek — and any time I see these particular, beautifuly fragrant flowers, I’m always reminded of my first exposure to them in Key West on my very first adult semi-tropical-type vacation. And I just can’t help thinking how cool it all is, and how very far from the banks of seven-mile creek.

Above, courtyard restaurant at our hotel with Mehrengarh in the far distance (we were sort of across the street from the Umaid Bhavan palace compound), and below…well, we did this little desert village tour and part of that was seeing how long the turbans are that Rajashtani men wear. Is it my color?

Osian – Town of Temples

Osian is a small town halfway between Jodhpur & Jaisalmer. Sitting in the middle of the desert, somewhat off the faster but longer road that connects Jodhpur up to Jaisalmer, its tourist magnets are two lovely temples built during Osian’s years as an important trading center, roughly 12th to 18th century CE. Since we were three traveling together, we had the luxury of our own car & driver, so we were able to stop at Osian on our way up to Jaisalmer…no long story to this one as there was with the temples at Ranakpur, north of Udaipur, which our driver had not understood were on the program until it was a wee bit too late to be practical — hence the Kumbalgarh-and-drive-through-lovely-countryside consolation prize.

…that peacock was photographed with you in mind, Robin. 🙂

…above, Paul sitting by the ‘Be Vegetarian’ lion (?) at the Jain Temple. Jains, for those who don’t know, believe even more than Hindus in not harming any living being; Jain thalis contain no butter or milk products. They also believe the nature of reality was revealed over the milennia by 24 different prophets, culminating in the 24th who established the Jain religion. Jains were often a very important trading and business presence in the towns and cities of what are now Rajasthan and Gujarat.

Further below, look for the green parrots below the trident on the Vaishnava (Hindu) temple tower, and the little girl in the Jain temple (daugher or granddaughter of one of the temple gate keepers) with kohl around her eyes – apparently SOP for little girls in lots of Rajasthani families.