Category Archives: class divide

Penultimate Day in Ethi

My penultimate day in Ethiopia.  There, I’ve always wanted to use that word.

Today I would be observing a training and a women’s group.  But first, I settled up my canteen bill, handed in the Chinese dongle that had never helped me get an Internet connection, and returned the ancient Nokia I had been given the first day.  For once, my age was an advantage with technology, since I had learned to text using the ABC system way back in 2005.  Pity the millennial or younger generation who has only known smart phone qwerty keypads with autocorrect.

I could receive messages but the phone wouldn’t send them.  I could see a queue of failed sends attempted by previous users.  I also received various messages in Tigrinya.  I will never know if the message below was important.  Had I missed an incredible two-for-one offer on camel milk?

Maki sent me several messages and I responded to her via my iphone.  Then she would reply to the Nokia. It was a little confusing.

I did some packing and noticed that my mattress was covered with this fabric.

I stared at it.  Why were there kangaroos all over my mattress and why had I not noticed before?  I had been here a week.  I can only posit that it was an example of how the mind narrows down when it is overwhelmed with too much new stimulus.

It could also be related to what I call “the gauze effect.”  I have often gone on a trip to a developing country thinking I’ll write blog posts every day, or fill my hours drafting a novel, or learn French because I’ll have lots of time on my hands.

I do none of that.  In fact I do nothing much, because the pace of life is so slow, the heat so intense, and getting the smallest task done feels like a major miracle.  It feels like a soft cotton gauze has settled over your head.  You can’t think, you can’t act.  Making a photocopy feels like a big accomplishment worthy of being rewarded with a nap.

I attended a two-hour training on attachment in the morning that was given by our expert psychotherapist to employees of other NGOs working with Eritrean refugees.  Several young women had brought their very cute babies, and I thought it must be a nice bonus for them that they got paid to learn about child development and attachment on the job.

A rooster had flown over the wall of our compound and was crowing incessantly in an alcove outside the training room.  Suddenly I saw one of the cooks stride purposefully past the door and the rooster gave an alarming “Bwuauck!”  We would be having poultry for dinner tonight.

After lunch we rode to one of the camps and hung around waiting for clients to show up.  One by one, women arrived, some with children.  CVT has a childcare tukul but the babies stay in the groups with their mothers.

About 15 minutes past the hour there were 10 women assembled and the facilitator began.  Thankfully she didn’t ask me to speak, she just told them who I was and I gave the same introduction as the rest of them: name, age, marital status, number of children, and how long I had been in Ethiopia.  “One week,” I said, smiling. And I thought, pained,  And I get to leave tomorrow, while none of you knows when she’ll return home or be resettled, if ever.

The facilitator translated here and there but mainly it was similar to the boys’ group the previous day; I knew enough to get the gist of what was going on.  All of the women were married with children and dressed in traditional clothing except one.  She was dressed in jeans and a tight-fitting T-shirt and had her hair in a glamorous up-do.  At first she sat slouched down in her chair with her arms crossed as if to say, “I’m not one of you.”  But as the group went on and the women shared she sat up and leaned forward.  It was a remarkable transformation, and a great example of the power of group counseling.



Cool Scotland

I am sitting on a big bed in a big bedroom in a big house in Scotland.  It’s so quiet, so clean, so cold.  It’s August 6 and there’s frost on the windows.  But the view out my window in the greenest green you can imagine.  Well, you don’t have to imagine it, here’s a photo from yesterday afternoon, when the high reached 60F.

I’m at Lynn’s house; I’ve written about our travels together many times.  I have sunk into a routine of working, eating, reading, walking, more work, more eating, and watching Dickensian, a brilliant BBC TV series that jumbles together all the Dickens characters into one murder mystery.  I don’t know why it never made it to the states.

Europe, Ethiopia, and England seem like dreams.  The episode I wrote about in my last post has already morphed from panic-stricken flurry of drama into something that will make a good story some day.

After returning from Lalibela, I put in a week of work in the refugee camps in northern Ethiopia near the Eritrean border and in our offices in Shire.  I’ve written about the “sensitizations” we carry out to tell people about the effects of torture and trauma on mental health and what we can do to help them heal.

I also sat in on a two-day training in which all of our counsellors were trained in on a new group manual for adolescents.  That probably sounds like a lot of gobbledegook.  There are a lot of adolescents who have fled from Eritrea.  They’re there without their families.  They don’t know when they’ll ever see their families again.  They attend school in the camps and there are recreational facilities where they can play football and so on but in general they feel hopeless and like most teenagers, they’re restless.  So they leave the camps and try to get to Europe.  These are those people you see in the news who are being fleeced by human traffickers, only to drown in rubber rafts in the Mediterranean Sea.  The lucky ones make it to Europe or Israel, where they again live in camps.

So there have been spates of suicides and suicide attempts and the groups for adolescents aim to prevent that and teach kids how to cope with the uncertain situations they live in.

I’ve written about the content already.  This staff training was really good, despite the fact that it all had to be translated, which made it twice as long as if our Kenyan psychotherapist could have just said it once, in English.  It was also despairingly hot and stuffy in the room, and why oh why did they keep one of the Landcruisers running right outside the window, so the exhaust fumes wafted into our room?

We had a break mid morning during which we were served the strongest coffee known to mankind and popcorn.  Yes, popcorn, which happens to be my favourite snack.  (“Counsellors,” “favourite,”—I am working on two grant proposals to British funders right now so my documents are set to UK English.)

This was also my chance to catch the cleaning lady and stop her from spraying poison and air freshener all over my room.  She smiled and gestured as if to say how this was her job, how important the poison was to control the rats, how wonderful the Country Peach air freshener would smell.  I smiled back, trying to convey that under no circumstances did I want this shit in my room.  The toxic-smelling floor cleaner she mopped around was bad enough, thank you.  I would take my chances with the rat sans poison.  She smiled in return and I’m pretty sure she went ahead and did what she’d been trained to do once I was back in the training room.

There were 25 counsellors in the training, and almost all of them were millennials.  They dressed like American millennials, in skinny jeans and Converse and T-shirts.  But unlike their American counterparts would have done, there were no cell phones in sight.  They all had cell phones.  Was it out of respect for Sandra, the trainer?  Or was it because they couldn’t get a signal or wifi anyway?

No Way Out

This is a series of posts about Belize and Guatemala that starts here.

Mike’s Place is a tourist complex where we would go kayaking or canoeing—it wasn’t  clear—in caves. Mike’s also featured “zip lining, hiking/swimming/rock climbing, food/drink/picnic/BBQ, and Wifi.”

Wifi, in case you wanted to watch a movie set in a jungle after hiking through a jungle.

Mike’s had been founded by a Canadian guy named Mike.  Here is a picture of him when he arrived in Belize.

Mike no longer looked like this.  He had probably partaken of a lot more food/drink/picnic/BBQ than hiking/swimming/rock climbing.  But never mind, he had a beautiful Belizean wife about 30 years younger than him.  She did the cooking and serving, and she seemed to adore Mike.

After 30 minutes of milling about, discussing vital questions such as “Should I bring a water bottle into the cave?” “Are there bats in the cave?” “Is there a place to go to the bathroom in the cave?” Jose our guide finally corralled us at the water’s edge and gave us a five-minute background on the history, geology, and safety concerns of canoeing in caves.

I live in Minnesota so I have done a lot of canoeing on rivers, in lakes, and in wilderness areas near the Canadian border.  I know how to steer; it’s really simple.  But I had no idea what to expect of canoeing in a cave. I had questions too, but I kept my mouth shut in hopes we would get going sooner and just find out once we were in inside what was involved. Would the water be calm or would there be currents?  How deep would it be?

These questions were not answered on the Wilderness Adventure website, and that’s okay—I don’t want to know everything in advance or it wouldn’t have been an adventure. When Mark and I had talked on the phone he hadn’t known anything about the canoeing either, since he had never been to Belize.  The packing list had recommended water gear as though it would be a serious canoe trip, and I had jettisoned mine after moving twice in three months the previous year.  I had gone shopping for water shoes and water-repellant clothes, none of which are cheap or findable in second-hand stores.  I browsed the water shoes and dropped them like they were red hot when I saw the price tags.  In the end, I brought some cheap Sketchers sandals I found at TJ Maxx.  Worst case scenario, I would throw them away if this canoe adventure turned out to be rigorous.

It was extremely tame.  They made us wear life jackets and helmets—because it was a cave with some low hanging outcrops—but we never paddled faster than two miles per hour.

Here is the cave entrance and the canoes.

As we paddled into the silent cave, the hooting of a barn owl that sat in a niche high above the entrance echoed in the darkness, which closed on us as soon as we were a few meters in.

A second guide, Alex, had been called in from his Sunday off because Mike hadn’t been expecting our group.  We drifted along at a leisurely pace, looking at the formations and ancient pots left by the Maya (maybe).  We paddled about a mile into the interior, and I asked Alex about his life.

He was 25 and from El Salvador, from whence his family had fled during the civil war.  He lived with his mother; his father had gone north to California, where he had a successful business.  Alex’s siblings had followed his father one by one and wanted him to join them.  He hadn’t seen his father in over 20 years.  He had no future in Belize.  But he was the youngest child, and his mother wanted to stay in Belize.

“Last month,” he said, “My father got me a visa and I was prepared to go.  But I just couldn’t leave my mother.”

I groaned internally.  Donald Trump had just issued a decree ordering the number of refugees admitted to the US in 2017 be cut in half.  Alex had probably missed his last chance.

The People

This is a series of posts about Belize and Guatemala that starts here.

Here’s the demographic run down on who was on this trip in Belize. There was Mark, who I’ve introduced as the trip leader, who was probably 28 years old.  He had a man bun, wore braided leather bracelets, and had very, very dark brown eyes.  A few times I found him staring intensely at me, like he was trying to read my mind, but then I realized he was just spaced out.

This is where it gets tricky.  I’ve used Mark’s real name because he’s on the Wilderness Inquiry website so you could figure out who he was if you had nothing better to do.

I’ve changed everyone else’s names.  I told the group I write a travel blog and that I would be writing about the trip, including about them. After all, isn’t it often the people you meet that make the most interesting stories?

When I whipped out my notebook to jot down place names and such, people would ask, “Is that for your blog?” and I would answer yes.  None of them asked how to get to the blog, but if any of them ever find their way here I wouldn’t want them to feel trashed.  We were all being ourselves, even if some of our selves were more irritating than others.

Even though I write things down, this blog would never pass a fact-checker’s muster.  So you can take the following as generally correct information.

Our group ranged from 45 to 75 years old, so I wonder if Mark felt like a baby boomer baby sitter.  There were two married couples from Minnesota. Inga’s family was Latvian and she had lived there before moving to the Pacific Northwest where she met Jesse, who was Native American and worked for some tribal concern.  They had moved to Minnesota when he got a job at a big foundation.  That had ended now, so they were in a life stage of trying to decide what next.

Mike and Joan were suburbanites and newly empty nesters.  They had a daughter with autism, and it had been an exhausting journey helping her to become independent. They were “reconnecting,” as they put it, on this trip.  Mike did something in IT and Joan was a stay-at-home mom.

There were two married people whose spouses would have hated this kind of travel.  Bugs?  Heat?  Hiking?  No way!  So they came by themselves.

Stan was a soft-spoken retired postal worker from Pittsburgh.  “I’m taking my wife on one of those Viking River Cruises in Europe next fall,” he told us.  “That’s her kind of travel—white linen table clothes, shopping, and museums.”

Stacy was a retired band teacher from New Jersey.  She and I were both Jewish, and we joked how about how it’s unusual to have 20% Jewish representation on a tour.

The last member of the group was a never-married woman my age named Liz.  She was from Columbus, Ohio and had worked in the mortgage department at a giant bank for 30 years.

So that was us—pretty homogeneous—mostly white, middle class, and middle aged.  When you think about it, it’s people like us who have the time and funds to do things like this.

Trudy’s interpreter, Emily, was the youngest among us at 45.  She lived a few blocks from me, was married to a guy from Zanzibar, and had four kids.

If you’ve ever been on a group trip, maybe you’ve experienced this—you are immediately drawn to one person, feel repelled by another, feel neutral about a third, and so on.  Emily and I hit it off right away, probably because we had both lived abroad.  While others on the trip had traveled internationally, there’s a big difference between that and living or working abroad.

Which brings me to some current news: I’m going to Ethiopia for work!  I’ve always wanted to write a sentence like that, and now I can.  It will be sometime in the next six weeks, so on top of planning my three months in Europe and the UK, this will give me writing fodder for years.

The Good Old Days

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

Our last full day in Toledo.  The next day we would take the train to Madrid, spend a night at an airport hotel, then fly early—me to Minneapolis/St. Paul and Lynn to Aberdeen.

At breakfast, I noticed over Lynn’s shoulder that there were large stone sculptures visible through the hotel windows.

“That’s nice, that they have a garden and sculptures outside,” I remarked.

“Yes,” Lynn replied, “Why don’t they mention it when you check in?  It would have been nice to sit out there yesterday when it was sunny.”

This led to a discussion of the few nice days in Scotland—in August—where you can sit out on the patio and have a Pimms.  In case you’ve never heard of Pimms, it’s a mysterious drink (mysterious to me as an American, anyway) that involves Pimm’s Liqueur and lots of fruit, cucumbers, and mint.  Very refreshing.  And then the rain comes, and you have to scurry back inside.

Somehow this led to a conversation about what makes the Scots Scottish.  Lynn, being English but living in Scotland, had many observations and insights.  I know it was a long discussion, but I can’t remember anything about it.  I wasn’t bored—quite the contrary—I always find topics like this interesting.  The good thing about not remembering conversations is that I can look forward to having them again the next time I see Lynn.

We were the last ones in the breakfast room again.  Time to move along; we were going to see all the rest of Toledo’s sites in one day.

I see in my sketchy notes that we went to the Santa Cruz Museum.  According to the map/guide, it has a “beautiful Plateresque doorway, coffered ceilings, and a monumental staircase in a Covarrubias design.”  Wow.  If I saw it, I’m sure I was impressed, but I have absolutely no recollection of it.  Maybe by now I was dazed by so many churches, museums, and other sites that my brain couldn’t take in any more.

I do remember the San Fe Museum … oh, wait.  On the map they look like the same thing … two museums possibly sharing one building? … online it describes “the hospital” of Santa Cruz.  Here’s a map of Toledo that was set in the sidewalk to illustrate what a jumble it is.

Anyway, Lynn and I paid €5 each and went into an enormous building named after a saint.  The floorplan was like a giant cross, naturally, and we figured out after about an hour that each arm of the cross was a different century, so we went from the 16th Century to the 15th, then to the 18th, then the 17th, which surely didn’t help me retain anything I might have accidentally learned.

By now I wasn’t even making a polite show of looking at the paintings of the Virgin Mary and crucifixions. What was left, if you skipped the religious stuff, was politics and culture.  Of course, religion, culture, and politics were inextricably intertwined.

Think about the entertainment options back then.  No TV, radio, movies, Internet, or telephone.  The first newspaper wasn’t published until the mid-1600s.  Books were rare and mostly owned by wealthy people and religious leaders, who were also the ones who commissioned paintings and musical pieces.  They ensured the themes were religious, except when they commissioned porn for their own secret collections.

If you were poor you worked six days a week and went to church on Sunday, where you saw paintings of martyrs, heard sermons about going to heaven when you died, and sang hymns about how blessed were the obedient poor.

It was all about control of wealth and power. This was also true about females born into wealth.  One of the themes of the exhibit was “strategic marriages as foreign policy.”  If a girl survived infancy, her parents started plotting her marriage to a decades-older cousin who was a royal in another principality.  If she didn’t produce an heir and a spare, she was considered worthless.

On the positive side, she did get to wear this for a couple hours during her coronation.

Desert Contrasts

This is the story of how I wound up in a brothel in Dubai, a series that starts here.

After finishing my meal at the brothel … er, TGI Thursdays, I took a taxi back to the hotel.  I apologized to Toni for yelling at her.  She apologized for calling herself an American.  Wait.  That doesn’t sound right.  You know what I mean.

I told her about the brothel and we shook our heads, imagining the young women in our lives working as prostitutes—or the men in our lives hiring prostitutes.  We talked about the irony that Dubai arrests tourists for making out on the beach, but that under the gaze of the Sheikh you could drink, smoke, and fornicate if you knew how to find the place.  We talked about puritanism, patriarchy, and power dynamics.  We agreed that Dubai wasn’t much different from North America, in that appearance and reality were completely different, like when you read about a child molester and you could bet he would turn out to be a Christian pastor or a Boy Scout leader.  We discussed the socioeconomic conditions and gender imbalances that made sex work the lesser of terrible ways to survive in a tough world.

We had a lot in common after all.  We bonded.  We agreed we didn’t need to spend every moment together.

The next day I took a bus to the Mall of the Emirates.  There was a young woman sitting across from me dressed in jeans, a tight-fitting but long-sleeved T-shirt, and a baseball cap.  The woman sitting behind her wore a full burqa; even the eye opening was covered with black mesh.

The bus route took us out of the old town through the desert.  I could see trailers in the distance—what we would call manufactured or mobile homes in the US.

It’s difficult to build an edifice complex without cheap labor.  These trailers in Dubai were home to the Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, and other migrant workers who were building skyscrapers and malls for the Sheikh.  I had read about how they were exploited and trapped out in the desert before I’d left Dublin.  The trailers certainly looked desolate.  I wondered how many brothers, fathers, or husbands of the TGI Thursdays women were also making a living in Dubai.

The mall was like any mall in Minnesota.  Not.  It had an indoor ski resort!  It had shops where you could buy every kind of burqa you desired, as long as it was black.


Like an idiot tourist I bought a three-foot-tall hookah pipe with lots of detachable, fragile parts which I then had to lug around with me on the bus, taxi, plane, and the bus in Dublin.  Having my arm in a sling didn’t help.  Take my advice, if you really want a hookah pipe, order it on Amazon.

Later that day I wandered around the old part of town near our hotel looking at store after store that sold gold.  Who bought this stuff?


Then I saw a beautiful tunic in a shop window and went in to try it on.  It was a bit big and the proprietor offered to tailor it for me on the spot.  He took the opportunity to fondle me and I thrust his hands away and he just laughed.  He did alter the tunic so I guess we both got what we wanted.  Below is what it looked like, modeled by a woman who actually looks good in it.


I bought some stamps at a kiosk so I could sent postcards.


I will give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they convey a message about zakat, or charity.

Toni and I went to a farewell banquet in the desert that night, complete with the obligatory camel ride and henna painting of our hands.  The next day, off we went back to Dublin.  Here’s a photo of the men’s and women’s mosques in the Dubai airport.


I started this series as a way of examining things that can go wrong while traveling.  In one week I will be in Rome.  If nothing goes “wrong” there like it did in Dubai, I’ll be disappointed!

TGI Thursdays

This is the story of how I accidentally wound up in a brothel in Dubai, part of a series that starts here.

The hostess at TGI Thursdays looked at me like I was an alien, then slowly led me to a table in the center of the restaurant and left me with a menu, which was all in English.

She had an African accent and I didn’t hear enough of it to ID which country, but I’m pretty sure her real name wasn’t the one on her nametag—“Hi!  My name is Emily.”

She was about six feet tall, string-bean thin, and wore stiletto heels and a barely-there mini skirt.  I vaguely wondered if she changed into more modest clothes to get to and from work, but I didn’t really give it much thought.

I was hungry by now, so I was happy when the waiter appeared almost immediately.  He too looked at me strangely.  Whatever!  What was wrong with these people?  I ordered a club sandwich and a beer, then settled back and looked around.

Have you ever walked into a situation and thought nothing of it until it was too late to get out of it?

All the other women in the bar were either African or Asian, and none appeared to be older than 20.  They were all dressed like “Emily”—in high heels, mini skirts, and low-cut blouses.  They were literally hanging on the arms of fat, middle aged white men, many of whom were talking loudly, so I could hear their Australian, English, and American accents.  North American, that is—I’m sure most of them were Canadian, ha, ha.  These were oil workers, no doubt, and I was in a brothel.

The girls (I’ll call them girls because many appeared to be 17 or 18 years old) tittered and cooed at everything the men said, as if the men were the most fascinating, funny, and appealing male specimens ever.

“Ooh, Keef, you so funny!” a girl laughed near my table.  Keith was 50-something, ruddy faced, rotund, and very drunk.  He sat tilted as though he was about to keel over.

As all this sunk in, one of the few Arab patrons approached my table.  He was like a human cliche of an Arab man: wearing a kaffiyeh, sporting a Saddam Hussein-style black mustache, and smoking a cigarette in a short gold holder.  He leered at me as he circled my table several times.

I had the urge to bleat like a lamb.  Then he aggressively pulled out the chair opposite me and asked, “May I join you?”

“No!” I exclaimed, perhaps a bit too loudly.

A giant Sudanese bouncer sidled up to me and the Arab guy slinked away.

“Do you know where you are?” the bouncer asked in a low voice.

“Yeh-yes…” I replied, feeling sheepish (in the embarrassed sense, not in the about-to-be groped-or-worse sense).

“I will stand next to you while you enjoy your meal,” the bouncer said.

What could I say but, “Thank you?”

My club sandwich and beer arrived.  They were like any club sandwich and beer you would get anywhere else in the world.  I ate, drank, and did what I commonly do when I am dining alone; I wrote in my journal.  In this case, I took detailed notes, which is how I can write this narrative years later.

It’s not a very remarkable story.  I’m sorry if you’re disappointed that something more dramatic didn’t happen.  It was an eye opener for me.  I had seen adolescent girls in Jamaica with the proverbial obese middle-aged German men stuffed into Speedos.  I had read about human trafficking and sex workers in my master’s program.

But this was how the business actually worked.  Supply and demand.  I figured the maze I had walked through to get to the entrance was a means of shielding passersby from what was going on inside, and also of signaling to people like me who just wanted a sandwich and a beer, “This is something you should think twice about!”   Obviously I was too dense to get it.

To be continued …