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

Farewell to Nigeria

Well, my friends, here you have it. So Much World, So Little Time has landed back in the US of A. If I can do some early-morning lounging in a comfy bed in my good friends’ George & Pierre’s beachside bungalow in Venice, enjoying streaming KRNN on the headphones and uploading photos to the blog via WiFi, then it seems to suggest I’m no longer in one of the developing-world towns I’ve lately been calling home. You’ll note, in the non-italic text below, that I wrote it about three weeks ago while sitting in Hong Kong en route to China; as you can guess, all this travelling I’ve done in the month (wow! yes – it was EXACTLY one month ago that I left PH, the 9th of May…) has left me quite exhausted and rather mentally whiplashed, coming as it did after a fulfilling and hard-working eight+ months in Port Harcourt. (I hit four continents in less than four weeks and averaged about two hours per day airborne – not counting terminal time and gate-but-not-yet-airborne time — over that period…) I know the sequence of these shots may seem off to some people – after all, I went to China after I left PH. But it simply does not seem right to let these wonderful shots that bring the PH & Nigeria era of this blog to an end, come after the photos of China, which though impressive and important represent only a couple weeks of my life, rather than the investment of time and mental energy I made, and was well rewarded for in experience and enjoyment, in Nigeria. So…herewith, SMW, SLT presents some final shots and thoughts from Nigeria…and Paris….and China. J Don’t expect to see much more on here for quite some time to come. I’ll be helping Mom with this house-reconstruction project, so am unlikely to have many experiences that merit the SMW, SLT treatment. (Though life often surprises me.) Take care…and though I’ve said it before I shall say it again: you all – and you KNOW who you are – are the most wonderful group of friends and family and supporters that anyone doing what I do could ever dream of having, in fact far more wonderful than I or anyone has any right to even dream of.

It feels well-nigh trite to say of Nigeria that it’s the people that make it great, and a wonderful place to spend some time working. Photos of African children looking happy are standard fare in tour books and tourists’ photo albums the world over, so it’s truly with some trepidation that I present these portraits for your enjoyment. But it’s all altogether too true. Relaxing (what the Nigerians would call vacating, cognate of ‘vacation’) at my desk in Los Angeles last summer, I read with some trepidation the stories of violence, crime and near-anarchy in Port Harcourt, Lagos and other parts of Nigeria. While excellent books like This House Has Fallen present very good portraits of Nigeria, they are by nature geared toward the dramatic. And if I’ve learned anything, it’s that most of the time life somehow manages to go on in most places, in usually rather undramatic and mundane ways.

In point of fact, Nigeria rocks and its people rock even more. Sure, it’s messed up and full of corruption, and no Nigerian will deny it. Heck, even the politicians admit it; they’ll just say it’s all the other politicians who’re corrupt and not them! 🙂 I find this in many ways more palatable than the US, where so far as I can see everything about our foreign and domestic policy since the ascension of Shrub George II has been all about how best to enrich the companies in whose shares his friends have invested…while the folks in Kansas and Texas still seem to think he’s trying to keep Americans safe. Yeah, whatever. And this has involved the deaths of hundreds of thousands in Iraq and around the world, while all Nigeria’s troubles have done so far is mess up Nigeria…oh yeah, and raise the price of oil even higher, which is the only time the developed world (and especially Americans) ever seems to notice Nigeria. But don’t misunderstand me to be suggesting that you head off on vacation to Nigeria any time soon – one colleague says, of Senegal (one of the more tourist-friendly countries in West Africa, one is given to understand), that ‘it’ll be a while before tourism here is really enjoyable for the tourists.’ This is even more true of Nigeria: if you get to work there, it’s great. I wouldn’t go there as a tourist any time soon.

Still and all, I’d certainly be delighted to work again in Nigeria, with Nigerians. A colleague – pardon me if I’ve mentioned this before in these pages, but I do love the quote – says he describes his experience in Nigeria as ‘a minimum security prison with a work release program.’ He adds that he loved it – one of the most enjoyable and engaging jobs he’s had, at least with MSF. I fully concur. Yet another said that Port Harcourt presented in many ways the most unattractive surroundings in which he’d worked – but that the work and hospital presented the most enjoyable and engaging work he’d done; another statement with which I quite concur. And that’s always it with MSF – it takes me to these crazy places, far from potential dates or even potential bean & cheese burritos, where I run a bit more daily risk than when I’m walking down the streets of San Francisco or London…but where the things I get to learn, the work I get to do and the people I get to meet just hands-down beat anything else I’m likely to have a chance to do at this point in my life.

When I was sent to China more than three years ago on my first MSF assignment, I remembered with some worry all those things I hadn’t loved about China, Taiwan and the Chinese in the 1980s – noisy, nosy, brash, often olfactorily dense (that’s a politically-correct way of saying things and even people often have very strong odors in China, something to which we Americans tend to react very adversely), etc. But I’d forgotten all the things I love about China and the Chinese – fascinating, culturally rich, often open and very friendly, full of surprises. MSF seems to keep sending me to these superlative countries – most populous in the world, most populous in Africa, etc. And of course I grew up in another superlative — biggest economy, most populous outside Asia, most fucked-up of the major economies, etc. Whether from these roots or from some other aspect of my personality, this seems to work for me: I end up loving these big, loud countries. I dream of vacations and retirement in Iceland , Ireland and New Zealand (places I picture as quiet, peaceful, clean, unpolluted, green…), but I seem to thrive when my work takes me their diametric opposite.

…And, below, a bunch of shots of me and the team out and about around PH and the creeks spreading the word about our trauma clinic and services for victims of violence & sexual violence.

Above & below – this is more or less in the heart of PH, in a section that borders the creeks…obviously. Seen from this perspective, kinda hard to conceive that it’s a 3-million inhabitant city that’s by far the largest city in the Niger Delta, which houses the world’s eighth-largest identified reserves of petroleum, huh?

Better late than never may be a good motto in the case of these photos. It’s a gray and somewhat drizzly Wednesday afternoon in Hong Kong as I write this, and Nigeria and my dense and rich experiences there during more than eight months seem a world or maybe a lifetime away already. Two weeks ago I was still in the swing of handing over to my replacement in Port Harcourt; a week ago I innocently expected to be back in NYC the following night after a few days of helpful debriefing in Paris. Right now I was supposed to be in Oberlin, getting ready for the weekend’s 100th anniversary festivities for Shansi ( for the uninitiated) and enjoying a slight break before taking up the home-reconstruction project for my mother. But – well, the earthquake in China happened and it seemed a good idea for someone with my experience of China and knowledge of the language to be available to help the team that’s ascertaining how and whether MSF can do more than we already have ( for those stories) to support populations affected by the earthquake in Sichuan. It strikes me that the contrast between China‘s official response to the earthquake – massive, swift, and generally quite thorough – and that of the junta in Myanmar to the destruction in the Iriwaddy Delta could hardly be more stark. Perhaps this means I’ll get to be home sooner rather than later, after all. But I’ve learned, again, that the future is unpredictable and often surprising. May we all experience surprises more pleasant than unpleasant in the coming months.

Empty market stalls on a non-market day in Oil Mill Market, where we frequently went on outreach to spread the word of our free-of-charge services for victims of violence & sexual violence. Below: a tree full of swallows’ nests in a creekside part of PH, and some of our outreach team posing with the local snack-stand manager in Abonnema, who it turns out happens to be the mother of two of our staff members. I remember my American friends all thinking I was crazy to go to Nigeria, and I remember my own worries; indeed, there is violence and there is danger there, as there is almost anywhere, but when we got into some of the smaller towns, again and again we found patients who’d been to us and welcomes our services, and/or friends and relatives of our own colleagues, if not our colleagues themselves on their days off. (On the day of this outreach, we were helped by one guy who happened to be in the market there in Abonnema, and just naturally grabbed some fliers and started helping out even though it was his day off.)

Creeks & Towns of the Niger Delta

…by the pier, the end of the dirt track that links Krakrama with some of the surrounding villages, though none of them are linked by road to any outside, larger towns. (More about that below…)

Above and below, a small fishing camp in the vast riverine network of the Niger Delta.

Below and above are a number of shots from trips into some of the creek or riverine towns I visited. The shots are mostly of Krakrama, a small town just off the roads and accessible only by boat; Abonnema, the largest town in the Kalabari Kingdom area, including a few shots of me and colleagues with the Amayanabo or King of Akuku-Toru/Abonnema; and Buguma, the traditional seat of the Kalabari Kingdom and its Amayanabo (different from the Amayanabo of Abonnema, though both are Kalabari town; Nigeria is a country rich in traditional rulers, chiefs, and kings – rather un-English, one might say…). In one shot you’ll see a large bridge crossing the river; this bridge links Abonnema, on one side of the river, with the road that leads to Buguma and other towns like Port Harcourt, as seen from Krakrama, which will need one or two more bridges built before it’s reachable by road. Even Abonnema and Buguma were only linked by road to the rest of the state when a new bridge went in about a decade ago.

…our wet pants tell you it was a rainy day on the creeks.

This is a fairly typical example of the type of evangelical protestant church that has sprung up, apparently, throughout West Africa. I found the Christianity of my Nigerian colleagues quite interesting — in the US, all the born-again evangelical types would never dance as fantastically as my Nigerian colleagues do; most certainly not to tunes with such lyrics as “I like that booty, I like that booty…” So our parties were sometimes a bit confounding to me: truly excellent dancing to songs whose lyrics were really quite forward; yet I had to remind myself that a very high percentage of those doing the dancing were very strongly Christian. I also noted that a lot of it is about power and success and winning — winners chapel is a typical name.

…me in the riverine equivalent of the corner bodega: in the plastic container is fried dough, yum!

Most of the boats on the river, in numbers, are still wooden dug-out canoes or pirogues (dunno if they really are pirogues or not, but that’s how I think of them…) that are obviously going about their fishing or taking- yams-to- the- market in the timeless way they’d have done long before British colonizers and missionaries starting showing up. But obviously, in this day and age, there are plenty of motorized transports on the creeks as well, hence the floating gas station right by Buguma Town, below.

These guns would have been used by slave-traders around the time that the guy represented in the statue below was Amayanabo (King) of the Kalabari Kingdom, a vast section of the Niger Delta in what is now southwestern Rivers State.

Above and below, two of PH from the water: a very different aspect of PH than the usual daily view en route house-hospital-house-hospital. An expat colleague, once, even asked how we came to have a patient with a motorboat-propeller injury – that’s how distant the reality of the Niger Delta was from our daily routines sometimes. 🙂

Port Harcourt Miscellany

…These shots just don’t fit very well into any other category I could think of, so here they are: two shots of me and Clara being mobbed by a group of kids at one of the schools we did some outreach to (above, early — the camera had just come out so not too many kids figured out that pix were being taken; below, just a few short seconds after…), a couple of the primary-school kids right next to the hospital who used to love nothing more than chant “Oyibo! Oyibo!” (= foreigner, white person) at us as we drove in to work each day, a goat looking curious, and a random shot of one of the many overstuffed vehicles that crowd the roads of PH. Sorry, this one’s really very moderately overstuffed: I’d wish I could have gotten one of those where the ropes are containing plantains and yams and other stuff that’s sticking a good couple meters out the back of the vehicle…but one takes what one can get.

Social Life in Port Harcourt

Often, departing expats spend virtually half a day taking photos with members of the staff and saying farewell. My friends who’ve noted my quiet disappearances from parties know that farewells are not my favorite thing, so it won’t surprise anyone that I slipped out of Teme rather quietly on my last day. My replacement was there and well settled in the job; my debriefing and weekend in Paris called; and I had new travels and new responsibilities to move on to. But I couldn’t resist a few final farewell shots with some of the staff I’d worked with most closely over the months, including the whole outreach and sexual-violence team, above.

Al, Michiko, Junko and I greatly enjoyed working with each other for the five months that all four of us were there — I overlapped with Michiko and Junko even longer, but Al just couldn’t hack it so he got out early. (Hehe, just joking: he was in far more demand back home than the rest of us, it seems.) On the last night before his departure, I treated us all at the nice Chinese restaurant in town, and we dressed up in our Nigerian finery: don’t laugh! Outfits like that look NORMAL on guys in Nigeria, and I know enough not to try wearing it as one outfit now that I’m back in the boring ol’ jeans and t-shirt US of A. 😦

…Above and below are a bunch of pictures of my colleagues and friends at farewell party that five of us (who were all leaving in the space of about four weeks) threw for ourselves and our Nigerian friends and colleagues. Dancing! Lots of fun! Beer and good times and good friends!

Clean & Green Calabar

so much world, so little time has been busy since we last checked in with you around the end-of-year holidays. Thus, without our noticing it, more than two months have passed. Our day job — you know, that trauma center/hospital because of which we’re all here — takes up at least six days out of seven, and on the seventh day…well, we tend to do yoga, read and sleep. Though lately I’ve taken to making dhal on Sundays as well, and can I tell you: I learned how to make pretty darn fine dhal during those seven+ months of … work … in Sri Lanka. 🙂 Anyhoo: I took an R&R weekend to Nigeria’s cleanest and greenest town, lovely Calabar on the Cross River not far from the border with Cameroon. Photos of said weekend are appended below. For those who don’t already know, I’ve extended my stay here since I love the job so much, and will now leave in May…I hope to post at least once or twice more before I leave, but let’s face it: I’ve only got about nine more free Sundays between now and my expected departure date…and one does want to enjoy the company of one’s (fabulous) colleagues, the ambience of a smoggy, humid, disgustingly hot Port Harcourt Sunday, and so on and so forth. So be patient. And read the archives, if you’re just s t a r v i n g for more smw, slt. Love and kisses. Vote Obama. Please. Let’s start focusing on beating McCain, shall we?

Colonial buildings abound in Calabar — most built in Liverpool, brought over by ship, and then reassembled piece by piece here. They housed colonial officials and their families, and also those Africans wealthy and powerful enough to buy one as a status symbol. After taking this shot, I discovered I’m not relaly allowed to take pictures in this zone…it’s a government building…but I had a friendly chat with the nice officer and he ended up wanting to pose for a picture with me instead. Kinda classic, that one. I hope I don’t get in trouble for posting this shot…I just thought the building was lovely, and I’d like for y’all to see some of the many things that make Nigeria fabulous, rather than just beset by myriad problems.

Me at Cercopan: more about Cercopan and primates in Calabar below.

Calabar really does public sculpture and other demonstratoins of public pride — the huge flag at the top is part of an independence monument in the center of town, and these hands are on a gorgeous bluff in the old district of town, overlooking the Cross River. It was delightful to wander and enjoy the green and relatively smog-free streets.

I sat at this little table by the river for a loonnng time enjoying the peace & quiet and writing in my journal. The walflower is hiding a lizard, but even I can’t really see him, I only know he’s there…and the wallflower is pretty on its own, isn’t it?

Colonial Calabar

Colonial buildings are another highlight
of Calabar — from the lovely house above (palace in fact, as noted in the sign to your right) — to the stone church across the street from it. Or the museum below, housed in one of the finest colonial buildings in town.

The Calabar Museum is praised by Lonely Planet as far and away the best museum in Calabar. It really is an excellent and interesting place full of documents and stories from the days when Europeans first decided this was a great place to buy slaves; then, as noted in the sign at right, when the British abolished the slave trade and started actively policing the high seas against slavers, the chiefs and businessmen of Calabar shifted to the palm-oil trade, from which the whole Niger Delta region thrived for many, many long decades. The whole museum is housed in the old British colonial governor’s house high on a bluff above the Cross River, and it’s very easy to imagine the governor and his staff or family sitting up here watching the boats ply their trade on the river below. LP recommends taking a torch (flashlight) since the power’s usually not running; I got a good half-hour in the darkened museum, reading by torchlight, until someone figure out I wasn’t supposed to be there without power and kicked me out. Oh well.

Primates in Calabar

A fantastic highlight of Calabar is the two small primate-related NGOs based there. Pandrillus, aka the Drill Ranch, was the first to start up – founded in the early 80s by an American woman named Liza with whom I had the pleasure of watching the drill monkeys (above) and chimpanzees (below) pace their compounds and – in the case of the chimps – frolic in the water. (Shortly after I wandered into the compound, which is tucked away on a back street in a residential part of town, Liza decided the heat was getting to the chimps, and out came the hose; and yes, I did get to hold it and spray this girl above for a while — for all the world it felt just like holding the hose on a hot summer day for a frontyard full of kids in the midwest — they’d take turns running into and out of the water and screeching happily. I ask you: where else would one get to spray a chimp with water on a hot summer…well, February…day?)

Anyhoo: long story short: Cross River State, of which Calabar is the capital, is home to some of Nigeria’s little remaining forest and wild habitat in which monkeys and other wildlife can pursue their lives as they always have. Sadly, many of them get shot for the bush-meat trade; Pandrillus and Cercopan, the other NGO, take in the monkeys orphaned by the bush-meat trade, and sometimes reclaim monkeys who’ve been shipped around the country or the world as pets. Pandrillus specializes in Drills, a pretty large monkey and close relative of the better-known Mandrill, which live only in a narrow band of Nigeria and Cameroon, and on a nearby island in Equatorial Guinea. Cercopan focuses on a few species of smaller monkeys, several of which I’ve captured in action below. Both have offices and small enclosures for newly-received primates in town, and a larger facility north in the forests, where they run larger groups and, I think, try to prepare some to return to the wild — though having been orphaned at a young age, and/or chained to a perch in a hotel lobby here or a barbershop there, many of these primates wouldn’t really thrive in the wilds any more, and so stay indefinitely — and breed. Both organizations have had success at captive breeding, which is great since the Drills and at least one of the species at Cercopan are quite endangered and live in habitat that is under constant threat. (The most endangerd at Cercopan, I believe, is limited to a narrow band of habitat between the Cross and Niger rivers in Nigeria. I’m here to tell you there’s not a ton of undisturbed habitat left in this particular zone!)

Not sure if this is a mom and her kid, or just two friends; one thing I saw very frequently during the hour or so I spent just staring at these fabulously un-stressed-out looking creatures was the frequetly with which one of them will collapse in front of another for a grooming session. The other will then quite obligingly start picking through fur and – one assumes – removing grubs and burrs and other debris acquired while roaming the…cage.

Power Holding Company of Nigeria is also known by two other titles I know of: Please Hold Candles Now, or Power Has Collapsed in Nigeria. I couldn’t pass up the chance to capture its logo for my scrapbook.

This flag, as you’ve noticed, quite captivated me — it’s visible from so many parts of town, and provides a unifying central image as one wanders the streets and paths of Calabar, something I was so delighted to be able to do that I ignored the sweat drenching my shirt and walked endlessly. Herewith a few more shots of contemporary Calabar.

The first time I saw — in Port Harcourt — a book vendor balancing a stack of books nearly as tall as himself on his own head, I was most impressed. Now I’ve become as accustomed to that as I am to the traffic here. The tree, above, is a bus stop — desintaitons all indicated on the sign to the left of the tree.

Just north of Calabar along the Cross River, surrounded by rubber plantations, is a development called Tinapa – which is trying hard to be “Africa’s premiere business resort and destination,” or something of the sort. It was hypothetically opened a year ago or so, but it seems the shops still aren’t selling anything because, according to one article I’ve read, they haven’t settled the import and selling permits yet. This may be code for “they haven’t bribed the right people yet,” but it’s hard to know. Tinapa also wants to become an important site for Nollywood — Africa’s largest film industry is based in Nigeria. Hence the gorilla on the round dome.

The Road to Calabar

One of the joys of spending a weekend in Calabar is the chance to actually see a little bit of the rest of Nigeria. Working six days in the hospital, and being pretty limited in terms of social and outing options on the seventh day, we tend to wear grooves in the road between the house, the hospital, and the one or two restaurants and bars where we spend almost all our time. Heading toward Calabar, after about two hours you get into a gorgeous green stretch of road in a state called Akwa Ibom, and from that point right down into Calabar the road really gave my eyes some much-needed relief from the hardscapes of Port Harcourt.