Category Archives: International Development

Torture and Gremlins

Despite the title of this post, it’s been a really good week.  I put in many hours of editing on proposals that will yield a couple million dollars for my former employer to carry out torture rehabilitation.  It’s that time of year where I get to read things like this:

(Skip this if you think it will upset you.)

Clients reported beatings with heavy or heated metal rods and guns, and beating while hands and legs are tied to a pole of while hung upside down. Other abuses included threats, humiliation, or other psychological torture; deprivation of food, water, or other necessities; being forced to watch someone else being tortured; forced labor; forced postures, stretching, or hanging; rape or sexual abuse; wounding or maiming, including being shot; sensory stress, such as exposure to extreme temperatures; asphyxiation; burns ; and electrical shock.

I share this because it’s reality all over the world today.  America did lots of these things to suspects in secret detention facilities overseas and at Guantanamo Bay.  It’s sobering.  It makes me feel even more grateful for my cushy life and more determined to continue “being political,” despite my urge to stick my head in the sand.

Then there were the gremlins.  It is weird how things happen all at once.  In the space of five days, the shower in my house stopped working—abruptly, while I was standing in it.  It’s proving difficult to find an electrician to replace the pump.  For decades now, young people have aspired to master’s degrees in International Studies, not apprenticeships in the trades.

I put a new filter in the water purifier and it worked for one day then quit.  I can buy a new apparatus.  But the water is really hard here, so I’ve got to do it soon.

I couldn’t get the printer to work. My laptop is on the ground floor and the printer is two stories up.  I would hit “Print,” then stick my head out the door to the hall to listen if I could hear any action upstairs—being careful not to allow cats to slip past.  I heard nothing, so I ran up the two steep flights of stairs to check.  No joy.  I repeated this five times, shutting down and rebooting, blah, blah, blah.  Now today it worked.

I was suddenly unable to access my work email on my phone, after years of no problems.  I fiddled with it until I was ready to throw it across the room, then left it for a couple days, and now it’s working again.

I had a really great yoga class on Friday.  As I was walking home—in front of the Black Swan pub—my right calf suddenly seized up.  I had to hobble home, about 10 blocks, like a wounded bird.  Was it the yoga?  All the stair climbing?  Who knows.  I spent the next 24 hours wondering how I would get by if I couldn’t walk for the next two months.  Oxford is not a city for sissies. But the next day it was better, and now I keep forgetting it even happened.

So many things do work, so it’s hard to get upset about the gremlins.

Brits keep telling me “It’s not spring!” But to this Minnesotan, it sure feels that way.  There are more and more 50F + days (10C).  There are blooming things everywhere.

And it’s green, green, green.

I try to enjoy the moments, like this cat v. chicken stare down in the back garden.  The cat lost, distracted by me.

At the store, I chuckled over this product name that sound like a villainous Star Trek race.

In the US, this box of Ritz crackers would be a single serving.

I must find one of these for my car.

If I am in the locker room, am I a tart?

I made wild mushroom soup.

And had dinner with an Aussie friend at a Palestinian restaurant.

The highlight of the week was when “my” Polish house cleaner gave me an Avon-like beauty catalog.  It’s her side hustle.

The world-famous couturier Valentin Yudashkin has provided me with so much entertainment I feel compelled to buy something, anything.

Good-Bye, Minnesota

Has it really been a month since I’ve written a post?  Writing about Japan took a ton of time and energy.  I needed a break.

I returned determined to cook and eat Japanese-ish.  I bought tiny dishes at the Salvation Army to add to the Siroton dishes I bought at the airport, then tried my hand at making pickled vegetables, tofu, and eggplant with dengaku, the super oishi (delicious) sauce.  I arranged everything beautifully on a bamboo tray and ate with chopsticks.

It was okay.  I did this for a few weeks, then reverted to my usual habit of making crock pot and hot-dish-type meals.

I will turn 60 in a few weeks.  I’ll be in the UK, so I threw an early party for myself.  I made big pans of vegetarian lasagna and moussaka.  My cousin Molly made two cakes—chocolate torte and cardamom lingonberry.

Vince brought a charcuterie board with so much cheese I sent friends home with baggies full.

It was a fun night.  I requested no presents, and most everyone took me at my word.

In a few hours I’ll board a plane to London.  My subletter will roll in this evening.  I’ve been cleaning and packing and doing laundry and taking care of business at a nice steady pace for a couple weeks.  I didn’t need any more stuff to make decisions on, thus the “no gifts” request.

I don’t need anything except warm clothes and books, and I have plenty of both.

I was super happy to see, when I checked in, rows of empty seats.  If it’s really true, I may actually be able to lie down across four seats and sleep a couple hours.  Shhhh…don’t tell anyone, but a certain family member is slipping me a couple Restless Legs prescription pills for the flight.

I’ll arrive in London at 7:30am, catch the bus to Oxford, and stay in a guest house for a couple nights before I move in to the house where I’ll be a cat and chicken carer for three months.

I’ll also be very busy working on proposals for my former employer, the torture rehabilitation NGO.

Believe it or not, I will miss working at the YMCA.  Child care is on the opposite end of the spectrum from my proposal work as far as pay, benefits, and prestige.  But I love little kids, it got me out of the house, and I took full advantage of the free Y membership that was the one perc of the job.

I will have to work to find things to do to pry myself away from the house in Oxford.  One thing that will help is that it’s already spring there—daffodils are blooming!  I will not miss the snow and cold of Minnesota.  I’ve shoveled the walks nine times thus far this year, and it’s now snowing again.  Blech.

I’ve gone through my usual phases of preparing myself emotionally and mentally for this sojourn.  The initial excitement.  The panic of organizing it all.  The last-minute thoughts of, “I don’t want to go!” and finally the readiness.

I feel guilty about leaving my mother.  She and her husband have so many health problems and she has depended on me to take her shopping, etc.  But it’s my youngest brother’s turn to play this role.  And my mother and her hubby have both told me, “Go!  Go while you can still do it.”

I will miss my friends and Vince and his wife and (I admit) most of all my new granddaughters.  I spent New Year’s Eve babysitting them, and it was a blast.  We went to a confetti drop at the zoo, gazed awe struck at manta rays and baby giraffes, waked through the St. Paul Cathedral and looked up at the stained glass windows, did art projects, went to the library, and (they) played with blue slime, a product that produces farting noises and is impossible to remove from sheets, pillows, hair, and clothes.

Please, try not to be jealous of my whoop-dee-doo NYE.

I didn’t want to write a post, but I did, and I’ll keep doing so once I’m on the other side.

Happy New Year!

Next Steps

As we were leaving our last museum of the day, the kindly volunteer gestured to a shelf with books for sale and invited us to take a work of origami made by her and other volunteers, gratis.  I realize they didn’t have many visitors this time of year and so they have time on their hands, but still—these works were really impressive.

For some reason I would have felt guilty taking, literally, a whole boatload, so I selected a deer, the symbol of Nara.  Here it is, in my curio cabinet, where it will remain the only item until I sell this behemoth.

The volunteer waved us back over to her desk, where she informed us of an approaching typhoon.  It turned out to be nothing, but it’s weird that I’m writing about it now, when there was actually a typhoon in Tokyo and the surrounding areas just last week that killed 60 people.

Back at the hotel, Lynn and I decided we would be too embarrassed to partake in the All You Can Drink menu for a third night.  So we ordered room service and had doughy, crustless cucumber sandwiches again, with corn nuts and vending machine beers.

The next day, I would journey on to Koyasan and Lynn would return to Tokyo, where she would spend a night and then fly back to Scotland the following day.

Since we met in 2006, Lynn and I have visited Prague, Italy, Berlin, Colombia, New Orleans, Spain, New York, Minnesota, many places in the UK, and now Japan.  As is our habit on our last night, we packed and talked travel.

Where were we going next?  What were the top three destinations on our travel wish lists?  Where should we try to meet up next?

I already had a round trip ticket to Panama for December. Lynn said she and Richard might have a holiday in Crete in spring 2020.  We talked about going to Vietnam.  It’s something we’ve discussed for a few years but between our work schedules and Vietnam’s rainy season, it hasn’t panned out so far.

We had the news on.  At the G20 Summit in nearby Osaka, Trump was insulting his host and our US ally, Japan.

“I know I talk about moving to another country all the time,” I said, wincing at the news.  “But this shit really, really makes me want to flee.”

“Well now you’re self-employed, you can work anywhere,” Lynn responded.

True.  But not so easy, with my mother declining and my son’s family growing.

There’s all my stuff. And my US friends

And inertia.

We went round and round about the bill for the hotel.  I had been tracking our shared expenses in an Excel spreadsheet, at which Lynn rolled her eyes.  In the end I snuck up to the front desk and paid the whole thing, and she wired me a few hundred quid once she was home.

Today is October 20 and here is an update before I wind up my Japan narrative.

I cancelled my trip to Panama.  It’s the first time in my life I’ve done this, but I didn’t have enough financial certainty to feel comfortable paying for two weeks there.  But also, the Rough Guide was full of statements like, “Avoid the scar slum,” and “The museum costs $2 and isn’t worth it,” and “This cathedral has been closed for renovation since 2010.”  So I wasn’t feelin’ it anyway.

As soon as I cancelled, I learned that my main contract would renew next year.

That’s good news, because I’ll be housesitting in Oxford for three months this winter and won’t be able to work in a job job.    I’ll be chicken and cat sitting, and working remotely on contract.  I’ve found a sub-letter for my duplex, so I won’t be losing money.

Then, I will traverse Europe by train and boat—an experiment to see if I can produce zero carbon emissions by not flying.  I’ll meet Lynn and Richard in Crete, where they will be with some other friends.

In the meantime, I’ll be working all the hours I can get at the YMCA, and substitute para-teaching, to save, save, save.

Exchanges

Thanks to Craig’s List, I found someone to sublet my duplex while I’m in Japan.  This will cover my bills back home, which will help me to not dig myself too deep into a financial pit.

The sub-letter is a Chinese guy who is earning a PhD in American Studies at the University of Minnesota. Zhang came by in February to look at the place and give me the deposit check.  Yesterday he came again to get an orientation to the house.

He brought a friend with him, Winnie, probably not her real name. Also Chinese, she graduated from the program in Counseling Psychology last year and is working two jobs, one in a group home for severely mentally ill adults and one in some other kind of home for handicapped children, I think.

So the US will still grant work visas for people who are willing to do that kind of physically and emotionally demanding work.  She probably makes minimum wage and gets no benefits.

It’s surprising, once you start thinking it through, how many things about a 900-square-foot duplex need explaining.  I’ve been foiled many a time by Italian washing machines overseas, so I didn’t take anything for granted.

Zhang is renting the place for his parents, who are coming to visit for a month.

I didn’t want to talk down to him but I didn’t want to assume he knew things.  “Your parents aren’t farmers from the Autonomous Mongolian Region, right?” I joked.  I had a renter years ago whose family fit that description.  She had not known what a waste basket was for.  I suppose, on a farm, they just burned their trash out back like we used to do in St. Paul in the 70s.

Zhang laughed and said his parents lived in a big city, but not far from that region. They had just retired from their factory jobs and this would be their first vacation.

“You mean their first vacation since retiring?”

“No, their first vacation, ever.”

Zhang seemed a bit taken aback by the gas stove.  “It’s a flame,” he remarked when I demonstrated.  I assume his parents would know all about stoves.  Maybe he never cooked until he had to fend for himself as a college student, and then maybe he ate in student dining or had a Bunsen burner in his dorm.

My compost bin also seemed a puzzle.  “Why is this woman showing me a can full of garbage, and why does she keep it in her house?” I imagined him thinking.  Winnie said, helpfully, “So the animals can eat this when you discard it outside?”

I said yes.  Why not.  I wasn’t going to try to explain how I am trying to save the planet by creating organic compost that I never use.  And the animals do eat it.

Zhang’s parents have never been on a vacation, never been outside of China or on a plane.  I’m not going to worry about them composting their food scraps.

I asked Zhang if he was done with school for the year.  He has finished his coursework and is now starting his thesis.  “I hope to finish in six years,” he said.  I wondered what his goal was—to teach?  Research?

You hear about the Chinese ability to think in terms of 50 or 100 years, unlike us Americans who are focused on where to buy our next bag of Cheetos.  Would Zhang return to China to help inform his government’s plan to make America its servant? Does that sound parnoid?  Well, I am just as vulnerable to my culture’s propaganda as any Chinese person is to his.

I felt I had to explain why I was going to Japan and not China.  “My sister-in-law is Japanese, and she and my nephews are going, so that’s why I’m going.”  I didn’t mention my daydreams if eating sushi for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

“I don’t know how my sister-in-law feels about me going,” I added.

“Inscrutable.  That’s the word westerners use about Asians,” replied Zhang.  I was glad he said it, not me.  And I was impressed.  I don’t think I knew the word “inscrutable” until I was 50.

Not Welcome

In my last post I wrote about Australia’s Welcome Wall, on which the names of everyone who has ever immigrated to Australia are inscribed.

There’s also a very mean side to Australia’s immigration policies, historical and present.  In the Maritime Museum there was a section about the White Australia program that handed out money to people—white people—from Britain to incentivize them to “settle” and “civilize” Australia.  It was specifically meant to exclude “hoards” of invading Asians, many of whom had been brought in as indentured laborers and then had the nerve to move to cities once their servitude in the outback was complete.

This program only ended in 1973.

Nowadays, Australia, like most countries, has a points-based system for immigration.  If you speak English and are a mining engineer or some other valued professional, you’re in!

If you’re a refugee, you are detained on Pacific islands like Nauru, an island so remote it obviously negates the need to build a wall.

One of my favorite news stories of late is of a Kurdish-Iranian journalist, Behrouz Boochani, who won the top prize at the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards for his book No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison.  Boochani has been detained on Manus, another Pacific island, since 2013.  He wrote the book on his cell phone and sent it in snippets to a translator via Whatsapp.

I’ve been thinking a lot about immigrants and refugees.  The issues are in the news a lot because of Donald Trump’s push to build a wall between the US and Mexico.  But I’ve also been hearing first-hand stories from immigrants that make me lose sleep at night.  I’ll relate three of them here.

One: A fellow employee and I were eating lunch in the break room at the YMCA.  I said his name—Vicente—and told him my son’s name was Vincent.  He stared at me incredulously and replied, “I’ve been in this country 18 years and no one has ever pronounced my name right.” Vicente told me he lived 45 minutes away from work. He left his apartment at 5:15am to get to his job as a custodian.  He was worried whether his car would start when he went outside after his shift because it was so cold and he thought he needed a new battery but he couldn’t afford it right now.

I asked if he liked his job and working at the Y.  He said yes, that in eight years there he had only had one bad experience.  He had been mopping the floor in the men’s locker room when a member screamed at him, “You got my socks wet!  I paid $60 for these socks—they’re high tech!

What an asshole. Vicente had responded that he was just doing his job.  Sort of to his credit, the man returned later and apologized.

Two: Vince works at a country club and his Mexican coworker, Angel, holds the same position as he does but has been there 10 years, as opposed to Vince’s two.  Vince noticed right away that when managers came in every morning, they greeted him (Vince) enthusiastically and made small talk but ignored Angel. Vince has brought it to the attention of HR several times but nothing has changed.

“The saddest part is,” said Vince, “I don’t think they’re dissing Angel.  I think they literally don’t see him—as a human being—he’s invisible.”

Three: At the Y again, one of my young coworkers showed a video on her phone of her car going up in flames.

“Someone doused it with gasoline, threw the gas can underneath, and set it on fire,” she explained. The fireball soared 25 feet into the air.

“But why!?” my other coworker and I were horrified.

“We don’t know,” she said carefully.  “There was this neighbor who was giving us dirty looks … my husband is white ….”

She is of Vietnamese ancestry. Could that be it—the neighbor wasn’t happy with a mixed-race couple?

“The police were useless.  We’d just had the baby, and we were so scared, so we moved out of our new house and we’re living with Matt’s parents.”

My.  God.

What are people so afraid of?

Lucky Me

In my last post I wrote about how content and grateful I feel.  And why shouldn’t I?  I didn’t have the easiest start in life, but I am now one of the most comfortable creatures on the planet.

I live simply, in a cheap but nice apartment.  My indulgence is travel, and last year I got to go to Colombia with two great friends, Lynn and Roxana.  Now Colombia is in the news almost daily, since its next-door-neighbor, Venezuela, is imploding and Colombia is taking in its refugees in a model way.

And I got to spend a month in Australia with Heidi and other friends and see the place through their eyes!  My interest had been tepid going in.  Would it be like Canada, with kangaroos?  No offense, Canada, but you’re not exactly exotic to an American.

But Australia grabbed my imagination and heart.  I would love to go back.

Back in Australia.  But not for long.

You may have wondered, as I wrote about snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef, if I saw coral bleaching. Yes, I did.  However, we were told that bleaching is normal, to a point.  It’s part of the ebb and flow of weather conditions.  I’m not an expert so I can’t say how much is normal, but as with most things, it’s more complicated than your friends’ Facebook posts would have you believe.

As I walked into the office of the resort, I knew from Jim’s face what he would say.

“They’ve found your passport.  Someone at the casino-cum-liquor-store turned it in to the police.”

“So if I had waited a day, I wouldn’t have had to change all my plans and lose a day here.”

“Do you feel lucky, or unlucky?” Jim asked.

“Oh, lucky, definitely. I’m nearly 60 and have traveled all over the world—that’s lucky.  And nothing like this has ever happened to me before, so that’s lucky.”

On the “not lucky” side, I didn’t know if my passport had been cancelled and I had a lot of hoops to jump through before I would be allowed to exit the country.

You may wonder why I didn’t retrace my steps and try to find my passport.  I don’t know.  This didn’t even occur to me until I was in Sydney. In an urgent situation I go into “just-deal-with-it” mode, instead of “figure-it-out” mode.  I would not make a very good detective.

This was an instance where it would have been preferable to be traveling with someone.  I know for a certainty that if Lynn or Heidi had been there, they would have suggested, “Let’s go back and check at all the places you stopped,” and I would have done it, and probably avoided all this drama.

Oh well.

I went out for s last walk around Palm Cove. These are Holdens, the Australian car brand that started out as a saddle maker in the 1850s.  Heidi had told me that every Australian family drove a Holden Colorado or Commodore in the 70s and 80s.  Then this venerable company declined and was bought by GM, which shut down all car manufacturing in Australia.

You can still buy a car called a Holden, but it is merely a re-branded import of some other car company’s model, made in Thailand or elsewhere, with the Holden lion insignia slapped on.

This is a Skoda.  I love that name; it sounds like a disease.  I saw all models and makes of cars and utes (trucks) in Australia but if I had to guess I’d say the majority were Toyotas.

I walked along the beach.  Aussies have beach safety down to a science. There were signs about sunburn, rip tides, and marine stingers.

These kids had everything but their faces covered, just like Minnesota kids in winter.

Night came and I was still hanging out; I like this photo of a young woman being asked to snap a photo of some senior holiday makers, as they call vacationers.

Back in my room, I read, then tried to force myself to sleep but my nose was stuffed up and it was futile.  My mind was also stuffed up with worries about the next day.

Grateful

Today, February 4, is the 59th anniversary of my birth.  59?!  How did that happen?

Ten years ago, when I was in the grip of a decades-long depression, I heard about some research that found older people are happier.  I remember scoffing: “No way!  How could you be happier, when you’re decrepit and inching closer to death, and can’t do anything you used to do?”

But in my case, at least, it’s proving to be true—the “happier” part, not the “can’t do anything” part.

Since leaving my job in mid-December, I’ve caught myself thinking on a regular basis, “Today was a good day,” and “Life is good,” and even, “I’m happy.”  These weren’t “if you believe it, it will be” exercises.  These thoughts come unbidden.  And it’s the first time in my life I’ve ever thought them.

And why shouldn’t I be content?

I am working on contract for my former employer.  This month I will submit something like $2.7 million worth of funding applications for Ethiopia and Jordan to the UN and US Government. It’s interesting, challenging, and meaningful work.

Somehow, doing the same work but from home is far less stressful and I am more productive.  I don’t get into office chit chat—which I enjoyed but which ate up time.  I don’t attend meetings except via Zoom and I’m not reading all the corporate communiques.

I no longer commute.  My drive was about 25 minutes each way, and by the time I got through rush hour I had usually yelled “you moron!,” at another driver.  I would arrive at work shaking from being cutting off or just listening to the news of the world on NPR.  I feel agitated writing those sentences.  Now I only drive before and after rush hours.

I am working two short shifts a week at the YMCA.  I love it.  I make 1/10th at the Y as I do writing proposals, but it is something different and it gets me out of the house, very important during the recent polar vortex.  I work in the childcare center.  I can see some of you grimacing at that—your worst nightmare.  But I love little kids, and being around them puts me in a zone—I don’t have to teach them anything; I am just there to play with them and keep them from biting each other.  I am now certified to provide CPR and if you knock out a tooth I’ll know what to do.   I get a free Y membership, so I am enjoying trying out all the different locations and classes.  The sauna was a godsend last month when I had a cold.

Maybe part of my contentedness is my keen awareness of how fortunate I am.  When I had that cold, I was propped up in bed one night feeling sorry for myself and I thought, “Somewhere there is a woman my age in a refugee camp who has a cold.  She can’t prop herself up to breath because she’s in a fucking tent and doesn’t have four pillows.  It’s dusty.  She doesn’t have Breathe Right Nasal Strips or eucalyptus essential oil in her humidifier.   She probably doesn’t even have Kleenex to blow her nose.

I shouldn’t have to make myself feel better at the expense of a refugee, but there you go.

My son and I received our first royalty check last week for the book we published in November.  We’re not going to be able to quit working or make big donations to refugee charities with our proceeds, but hey, we did it—we wrote and published a book!

Finally, yesterday my sister-in-law and I bought four tickets to Japan for June in a big sale through a Chicago travel agency.  It still wasn’t cheap, but it was $600 less than anything posted publicly.  So use a travel agent for big trips—they really can see things you can’t.

It’s my brother’s busiest season as a wedding videographer, so I will go with Akiko and my two nephews and chaperone the second one back home after a month.  I have no idea where I’ll stay or what I’ll do yet, but that will be the fun part.  Suggestions welcome!