Whirlwind Tour

Five countries in 17 days.  I’ll never get around to writing about it all, but I’ll try to capture some highlights.  Today: Copenhagen.

People: The blondest people I’ve ever seen, and I’m from Minnesota.  People with pointy, turned-up noses whose language sounds like, “Hoon-dah, hoon dah, hoon dah.”  There were also huge groups of Chinese tourists everywhere.

Weather: Cold, grey, rainy.

Quiet: Two reasons: electric vehicles and bicycles.  Throngs of people in suits commuting to work, sitting ram-rod erect as they whiz along with no helmets.

Expensive: A salmon and cream cheese bagel in a nondescript coffee shop cost 55 krone, or about $11.  Two delicious herring appetizers and a small bottle of water at the Design Museum cost $30.

Design: Beautiful wood was used for everything from the airport floor to the bagel counter.  The Air B&B I stayed in was full of Danish Modern furniture and even the most prosaic item was designed, from canisters to ladles to the appliances and bathroom fixtures.

I arrived late at night and splurged to take a taxi from the airport.  That cost about $45, compared with the $4 train ride I would return on, but it also took only 15 minutes, compared with about an hour and 15 minutes on the train, which had multiple delays including all passengers being told to get off and switch to another train.

The accommodation was great for the price, if all you need is a single bed and a good location.  The three-story townhouse was owned by a woman named Mette who was a divorced lawyer with two kids who were at their father’s.  I only saw Mette’s face as I peered down the steps from the second floor late at night, which was when she got home from work. This was fine with me; I was wanting-to-be-alone mode.

The house, as I’ve already written, was a collection of beautifully- and/or sensibly-designed things.  I felt like I was living in an Ikea store.  One surprise was that there was no recycling.  None!  I think it was just Mette’s neighborhood, which had very narrow streets and thus would be difficult to get a recycling truck through.  It felt really weird throwing paper and glass bottles in the trash.

So what is there to do in Copenhagen?  Two things rise to the top—the gardens and the palace.  Maybe because the weather is so crappy, they work to make their gardens in Copenhagen impressive—and they are.  It really would have been spectacular with some sun, but never mind.  There are the botanical gardens, which have enormous greenhouse complexes, and across the street are more gardens surrounding the Rosenborg palace.

Since Copenhagen is so expensive and I was just at the beginning of my journey, when I am always more cautious about spending, I bought a sandwich and some grapes at Aldi and had picnics in the gardens two days.  Interestingly, Aldi is a horrible, dirty, dumpy store in Europe.  This was my impression in Copenhagen, and it was confirmed by my friend in the Netherlands, who said something like, “Eew … you shopped at an Aldi?!”  Still, it was cheap.

I toured the Rosenborg along with 3,000 Chinese tourists.  I’ve been to a lot of palaces.  Usually they are vast, spreading, and sprawling.  I thought the Rosenborg was modest as palaces go, and it was built more on a vertical plan.  That is, the rooms were small but there were four stories, as opposed to most palaces which have two.  Another thing that was different was the lack of religious imagery.

I knew nothing about the Danish monarchy.  Did you know one of the queens had an affair which resulted in an illegitimate daughter?  Any English king probably would have beheaded her, but in enlightened Denmark I guess it wasn’t an issue.

The Nyhavn area is overhyped.  It epitomizes the term “touristy.”  The fortress, called the Kastellet, was a “meh.”  I never got to Tivoli Gardens.  It would have required a bus ride, and I just wasn’t up to figuring out the public transport system.  If I go again, I would start with a Hop On Hop Off bus tour to get my bearings.

Next up: Utrecht.

Beasts of Burden

The first thing I noticed in Ethiopia, and an enduring image I’ll carry in my mind, is how hard people (and animals) toil.

I spent a lot of time being driven in trucks.  Along the side of the roads there were always streams of people walking.  If it took us an hour to get from Axum to Shire, how long did it take people to walk?  It was 90F and humid with no shade.  There were no sidewalks, just rock strewn shoulders.  People walked barefoot or in what appeared to be 99 cent flip flops or jellies. No one was carrying a water bottle or wearing sun glasses.  I’m sure they weren’t wearing sun screen.

Oh, and did I mention that they were all carrying enormous bundles of twigs, gallons of water, babies, rebar, small trees, or sacks of potatoes?  Men, women, children.  Old people, little kids.  I saw a girl who looked like she was four years old walking alone in the middle of nowhere, balancing a case or juice boxes on her head.  Did she ever wonder if this was normal, or okay?

The lucky ones had camels or donkeys whose paniers were loaded with rocks or bricks or 5 gallon water jugs.  I rarely saw anyone riding a donkey or camel; they’re reserved for transporting heavy loads and riding one probably would seem frivolous.

The Ethiopian roads are probably better than what we have in the US—maybe due to not undergoing the freezing and thawing of winter. They’re smooth and black and look like they were laid down yesterday.  And yet there is very little traffic.  No one can afford a car.  In a week there, I only ever saw one passenger sedan.  Everything else is one of four things: a commercial truck, a bus, a white NGO Toyota Land Cruiser, or a Bajaj.  These diesel powered three wheeled vehicles that taxi people around for short distances.  I believe they’re called tuk-tucks in India and cocos in Cuba.  Anyway, don’t bother looking for a taxi because there are none.  And no worries about running a red light, because there are no stop lights of any color, stop signs, or signs pointing the way to anything.

Despite the great road and light traffic, Ethiopians still manage to have a lot of accidents.  I saw four road accidents in the one-hour drive from Axum to Shire, all involving buses.  One appeared to have rolled five or six times; an ambulance was at the scene and I couldn’t imagine anyone survived without major trauma.

Back in the refugee camp, I was listening to our staff tell the group how, if they feel “heavy” or worry constantly, suffer guilt for surviving when their family did not, or have flashbacks and nightmares, those are normal reactions to the abnormal experiences they’ve lived through.  They described how talking about troubling emotions with others can help people heal.

This may seem obvious to you, but I wish someone had told me all this when I was an adolescent because, well, I wasn’t tortured but I believed I was the only one on earth who felt insecure, unpopular, and ugly.  Well maybe I was, but odds are I wasn’t.

A scrawny kid of about 15 sauntered up and started listening.  He was wearing skinny jeans and a black shirt with white lettering that said, “Life is Party.”  He was smoking—the first smoker I’d seen—although I was told later that lots of the kids on their own smoke.

There were other funny T-shirts in the crowd, likely made in China.  One said “Inmy Mind;” my favorite was “Jerry Smith World Famous Surveying Co.”  How cool is that T-shirt?

I wondered how long had it been since he’d seen his mother or father. He looked tres cool but then teenagers always do.

The speaker was now talking about CVT’s services, and making very clear that CVT does not provide any material aid or cash support.  A woman raised her hand to say she’d attended the groups and that “going to CVT does not mean you are crazy.”  The audience was encouraged to contact CVT if they “knew anyone” with the symptoms described.

Happy to Be Here

I’ve written about the rats, dust, diesel fumes, noise, and mosquitoes here in Ethiopia.

Now for the good things.  It is so great to be here.  With others I’ve been trying to raise funds for our Ethiopia program for about three years, and I am finally seeing first-hand what happens here.  It’s easy to get a bit cynical when you’re sitting at HQ.  This has swept my cynicism away.

It took a lot to get here.  I took an overnight flight from Frankfurt to Addis Ababa, the capital.  An hour later I flew north to Axum, and from there it was a one-hour drive to Shire, where CVT has an office.  I flew to Lalibela for some weekend R&R and I’ll write about that later.  On Monday morning, back in Shire, everyone piled into one of the ubiquitous white NGO trucks plastered with our logo and donor recognition—in our case, the US flag with the note, “Gift of the United States Government PRM” (Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration).

Our destination was Mai Tsebri, home of my dearly departed rat (I hope).  In Mai Tsebri, CVT has a walled compound. The trucks back in through the gate into a courtyard with a dirt floor planted with mango trees and a water cistern as big as a Humvee.  Two floors of rooms ring it—a kitchen, canteen, training room, staff quarters, HR, logistics, and the oh-so important generator shed.

Each morning the staff pile into the trucks for the drive to the refugee camps, which is about a half hour.  It’s spectacular countryside, along twisting roads through the mountains.  I had heard that the ride makes people sick, so I was relieved it didn’t happen to me.

So after eight flights in 13 days and five long, dusty drives, I was in one of the camps where we work.

And it’s great.  I am so happy to meet the staff whose names I’ve entered into online forms.

There’s a lot to write about, but for now I’ll describe the camp and the mornings’ activity.

There’s a small Ethiopian settlement called Adi Harush.  The ground is red, rocky, uneven, and dusty.  The houses are built of square cement bricks and are maybe 15 by 12 feet.  Each has a tin roof, a door, and windows on two sides.  The houses are in pretty rough shape.

Then you cross some invisible line and you’re in a refugee camp.  The houses are the same but they’re brand new, neat and tidy.  The people are the same ethnic group, but they’re Eritrean, not Ethiopian, and they speak Tigrinya instead of Amharic.

There are communal latrines (below) and water spigots, schools, an amphitheater where boys were playing basketball, a women’s center (below) where the ladies can get their hair done, watch TV, and discuss Gender Based Violence.

There’s no barbed wire fence or armed guard to keep anyone in, and that’s a problem, as you’ll learn.

Three CVT staff found a spot of shade against a house and a group of people began to assemble.  One staffer set down two stools about eight inches high, gestured for me to sit down, and sat next to me.  The other two employees began to present information on trauma and torture to about 30 men, women, and children while my stool mate interpreted for me.  We call this a sensitization—to help people understand that if they’re depressed, anxious or not sleeping, that’s normal given what they’ve been through, and CVT can help.

Almost everyone in the camp is separated from his or her family.  Some were forced into never-ending military service, kept in underground prisons, or trafficked.  There are lots of children on their own, and there are waves of suicide among them.

I had the interpreter seriously repeating everything into my ear, while two tiny boys stood directly in front of me making funny faces.  One had no pants on.  Did I laugh at them and risk looking insensitive to the crowd, or remain serious and miss the joy of flirting with small children?  I think I did all of the above.

Night of the Rat

Greetings from Mai Tsebri, Ethiopia, 25 miles from the Eritrean border—although it’s hard to know because this town isn’t on Google Maps.  I’ve been in Ethiopia for a week now, and I’m ready to get out of here.

Mainly because of the rat.

I am staying at the Center for Victims of Trauma office here (we are the Center for Victims of Torture everywhere else but for political reasons we had to tone down the name here).

I am in the guest room.  Here are some pictures:

The first night, exhausted from traveling all day, hot and sticky, my head clogged up from the chemicals they use to disinfect everything, I finally fell asleep with the ceiling fan turned on high, wafting my mosquito netting up and down.

Some time later I was awakened by the loud sound of something scrabbling its way up the drain pipe in the bathroom and then slurp! I could hear it pop out and scurry around in the dark.

The power had gone out, so I couldn’t turn on the light.  It had to be a rat because the other things that come up drain pipes, like cockroaches and snakes, would be silent.  I have experience with this from Mexico, where you didn’t know the giant cockroaches were in your room until they ran up your arm in the dark.

I wasn’t going to wait for a rat to run up my arm.  I got the first shot in the rabies series before I left home and I would have to get the rest of them if I was bitten by a rat—but where would I find the rabies series here?  It took two flights and three hours of driving to get here.

I turned my cell phone up as bright as it would go, then flashed it into all the nooks and crannies and under the bed.  I didn’t see anything.  I got back into bed and could hear it scuttling around beneath me.  I got up and blasted the phone blindly, then climbed back into bed and fell asleep with the phone clutched in my hand.

Right now I am in a training room furnished with red and green upholstered hotel chairs.  Our master’s-degree-level Ethiopian counselors are training 17 Eritrean counselors who work for Norwegian Refugee Council in how to recognize the symptoms of torture and trauma and what to do about them.  One of the counselors has a small child on her lap and another has a baby strapped to her back.

I did a fundraising training with our employees yesterday. Part II was supposed to be today, but I’ve completely lost my voice.  I don’t have a cold, so it must be the diesel fumes and dust and chemicals.

“Ferenji, ferenji!” come the high calls of children as I walk by.  “White person, white person!”  I pass a woman with a small daughter; the mother pulls her daughter close and says in a hushed warning tone, “Ferenji,” like I’m a monster.  Our country director, who is Japanese, hears “China, China!”, which she doesn’t appreciate.  Sometimes they call me China too.  I guess we all look alike.

In the morning, I thought maybe I had imagined the rat.  Maybe I was just being dramatic.  When I told the country director she said phlegmatically, “Yes, there are rats here.  I hate them.”

Our Kenyan psychotherapist, who has the room next to mine informed me that he’s got traps set.

“Oh great,” I said with a laugh, “That probably drives them into my room!”

I put a plate over the drain and placed a heavy rock on top of it.

There was no rat that night, although I was wearing ear plugs to blur out the sound of drumming and singing and ululating that went on for hours somewhere nearby, so maybe I just didn’t hear the little bastard.

Third night: the rat was back.  It’s not like the room was well sealed.  Then I heard a terrifying squealing from next door.  I choose to believe it was my rat.  Game over, rat!

Auf Wiedersehen

Greetings from Salzurg, Austria.  I am sitting in the breakfast lounge at Pension Elizabeth, where Abba is playing on a loop, the Internet is super slow, and the hotel staff are having some kind of meeting with a salesperson at the next table.

I’ll leave for the airport in a few hours to fly to Ethiopia, where I’m told I’ll have no Internet.  I would love to say I’m going to write enough posts to take you along with me, but that’s a fairy dream.  Complications are following me, and I can’t say I’ve really had one day off since I left 11 days ago.

I’ve got 200 emails in my work inbox.  The June 1 payment from my renters back home hasn’t shown up in my checking account.  I am getting texts and phone calls from someone who needs to know something about the sale of my condo and I have no idea who they’re from or what they’re about.

The most “exciting” complication happened when I flew from Copenhagen to Amsterdam.  I received a reminder from Expedia the night before to check in.  Norwegian Air’s website didn’t recognize the routing number but I got a message that said, “Don’t Worry! We’re still working on our website.”  Really?  Did Norway just get the Internet?

The train to the airport the next day left late and stopped twice to let other trains go by in the other direction.  In general, I think this is good, but not when it keeps you standing still for 20 minutes at a time. Finally, we were told to get off and take another train.  I had, as they always advise you, allowed plenty of time to get to the airport early but got there about an hour before my flight was to leave.

And Norwegian Air had no record of the flight.

It’s a long story, but I ran from one terminal to another, then back again, then back in the other direction, and was quoted up to $800 for a new ticket.  I did all this with my big bag full of books, since I hadn’t been able to check it.

In the end, I was lucky to get the last seat on a Scandinavian Airlines flight for $406.  Expedia says their records show I took the Norwegian flight.  They are telling me to call Norwegian Air id I still think there is a problem.  Call?—as in make an international call that will cost me $1 a minute to sit on hold?  I protested, but Expedia hasn’t responded.  If anyone has advice to doing battle with Expedia, please let me know.

Four hundred bucks is a lot of money to lose, but also in the mad rushing around in the airport, I must have dropped my bag on my foot.  Once I arrived in the Netherlands and took my socks off at my friend’s house, I saw an alarming gold-ball sized green swelling on the top of my left foot.  I immediately thought of the American journalist Miles O’Brien, who had a freak accident where something fell on his arm.  The incident seemed mild, but it caused something called Acute Compartment Syndrome.  He had to have his arm amputated.  Boy, is he good looking—you really should check out that article.

My foot swelling went down that night, but my whole foot has been black and blue for a week.  I showed it to my friend and we went down a check list: it’s not numb.  I can bend my toes.  It’s tender to the touch but not painful to walk.  The swelling is gone.

Good to go to Ethiopia, right!?

Other than the potentially fatal foot injury, $406 loss, and the nonstop rain that follows me everywhere, I’ve had a great time so far.

Okay, I’m off to bring the rain to Ethiopia.

I’ll write more when I get to Cornwall, England in a week or so.

Welcome, Now Go Away

This is a series of posts about spending the summer abroad that starts here.

Greetings from Copenhagen!  Obviously I got here, and the journey was pretty smooth.

My flight to London from Minneapolis was sold out.  There were only two open seats, in the last row.  I was in the second-to-last row with a guy who introduced himself to me as Chuck.  “Chatty Chuck,” I immediately dubbed him in my head.  I flagged down a flight attendant and asked if Chuck or I could move to the empty row but she explained they were reserved for the flight crew.  I felt rude as I donned my earplugs and sleep mask while Chuck chatted away, but within minutes I was sound asleep.  When I woke after the plane leveled off, Chuck was in the back row.  “They said they wouldn’t need these after all,” he reported excitedly. I flopped down across two seats of heavenly sleeping comfort.

Now, two seats on an airplane are still not much room.  I’m 5’ 3” and still had to assume a fetal position.  But I was horizontal.  And I had my full-sized feather pillow, which gave me something soft to rest my head on instead of the arm rest.

It was the best sleep over I’ve ever had.  I woke the next morning at 11:30 London time, a half hour before arrival, and slugged down two cups of coffee.

My vertigo was gone.  My mother, a neurobiologist in her mind, had predicted, “that thing—you know, that airplane pressure thing,” might make it go and I had snickered but maybe she was on to something.  Now doctors could just prescribe a trans-Atlantic flight for vertigo.

One of my fears was that, because my trip is so long, border control at Heathrow might think I was entering the UK to stay.  I had an envelope with financial documents to prove I had assets in the US—a property, savings, a job to return to.  But the agent asked to see proof of my onward flight to Copenhagen.  When I checked in, the SAS (Scandinavian Airlines) website had promised to send my boarding pass via text “right away,” but it never materialized.

I was explaining this to the agent.  She looked annoyed and bored.  Imagine all the lame stories they must hear.  Typical of an immigration hall, there were signs saying, “The use of Mobile Phones is Expressly Forbidden in this Area.”  I asked permission to use mine so I could show an email with the flight confirmation.  She sighed and said yes, as though that was the most obvious thing in the world and why hadn’t I done it already?  The email wouldn’t load.  She rolled her eyes and said as though speaking to a very naughty five year old, “Madam, I will make a special allowance this time.  But in future, I strongly suggest you do not rely so heavily on technology.”

“But I don’t have a printer at home….”  She stamped my passport by way of saying, “Don’t Care!  Next!” and away I went.  In my passport was stamped this friendly message, “No work or recourse to public funds.”

I wonder what we stamp in visitors’ passports when they enter the US?  If anyone knows, please share.  Since I couldn’t go on the dole in England, I would just have to move on to Copenhagen.  But first I had to get my luggage, check back in, go through security, and hang out at Heathrow for five hours.

To my dismay, there was a five-inch-long gash in my suitcase.  I had been lucky enough to find an “It” bag, the lightest bag in the world, on sale at TJ Maxx. The Delta agent was very solicitous, giving me a claim number, telling me to register it online asap, and fruitlessly trying to tape up the gash with tape that immediately fell off.  As long as the gash doesn’t lengthen, I should be okay.  I’ve got some duct tape in my bag I packed to mend mosquito netting in Ethiopia.  I am keeping my expectations for the claim—for instance if Delta even responds to it within six months—very low.

How to Give Yourself a Migraine

This is a series of posts about spending the summer abroad that starts here.

After my last post, I feel I should write about the stressors of planning a summer abroad.

I would never claim it’s easy.  It takes a lot of planning and discipline—especially when you work part-time for a nonprofit—to spread out the expenses.

For instance, my renters wanted my place but with two caveats.  They wanted: 1) a queen sized bed; and 2) an air conditioner.

The AC was easy—buy the smallest possible unit because my bedroom is minuscule—pop it into the window.  Ha ha.  There were many tears, shrieks, and F bombs.  But it’s done, and I may use the AC myself.

The bed?  Another matter.  I love(d) my soft full-sized mattress but gave it up to my son.  Then I bought a bed in a box from Walmart.  These things are amazing.  They come in a box the size of a medium sized TV.  You open the box and phooosh!  In a couple minutes you’ve got a queen sized mattress.  Be sure not to open the box in a hallway!

I hate spending money at Walmart but there’s a reason people shop there—it’s the cheapest—and this mattress and frame are actually really good quality.  The mattress is hard as a rock which I hate, but apparently most people prefer.

I was all set with the renters.  Then, one month prior to departure, I made the decision to sell my condo. There are various reasons for this, but the timing was due to it being a red hot market for lower-priced properties like mine.

The day I called my realtor, I began to feel a dull vibrating roar in my head.  Did I mention that, in addition to getting ready to spend three months abroad it was also Proposal Hell Month at work?  I have never felt so overwhelmed, and so productive, in my life.

If you’ve ever sold a house, you know there are a ton of decisions and paperwork to deal with.  You have to get your house pristinely clean and keep it that way at all times.  You have to drop everything and leave to make way for showings.

I woke up the morning after my decision, rolled over in bed, and felt like I was on the deck of a heaving ship.  Damn—vertigo!  I’ve had it 2-3 times before and I know it’s the result of me being pushed beyond my limit of stress.

The house went on the market.  There were 20 showings in three days, and four offers by the end of the fourth day.  I will make a nice profit, although it will just make up for the last time I sold a condo, at the bottom of the Great Recession in 2009.  It’s my turn.

The renters are protected—I made sure of that.  My realtor will sign all the closing paperwork for me in June and I’ll rent my own condo from the buyer for a month when I get home.

Home.  Where is home? Where will I go next?  I have no idea.

I went to see my doctor, then to a dizzy clinic.  I’ve seen two physical therapists and don’t feel any better.  They think it may be a Vestibular Migraine.  This is a migraine without the headache.  It still sucks plenty, because one symptom is episodes where so much pressure builds up in my head that I feel like I’m having a stroke.

The worst part of this whole summer adventure has been trying to buy a new phone from ATT.  I’ve been using the same iPhone 4 for five years and it was time for a change.  I tried over and over to buy an iPhone SE from ATT, but apparently they don’t like people spending money with their company because they screwed up the order half a dozen ways.

I know, first world problems.

I think I’m ready.  I can’t wait to have some down time. I don’t know when I’ll post again, but I’ll write from across the ocean eventually.

See you on the other side!