Category Archives: International Development

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!

Getting Around

My plan is to write one post about each day in Australia, since I had so many days there.  When I recall all we did on just my second day, I’m doubtful.  Here goes.

Day Two was a work day for Heidi. Classes had ended at St. Patrick’s College, where she is a teacher, but there was some kind of assembly she wanted to attend.  I jumped at the chance to go along for the ride.  I love doing things like this when I travel—things off the usual tourist menu.

“College” in Australia doesn’t mean higher education.  St. Pat’s, which is Catholic, is a boys  school with grades five through 12.  Heidi works in the “diverse learning” department, which is a combination of what, in the US, we would call “special ed” and “gifted and talented.” She works three days a week but will go up to four next year.  She loves the boys at St. Pat’s, especially after chaperoning a group of them on a 10-day trip to remote Papua New Guinea this summer, where they had no internet, phone signals, or hot water for showering.

Heidi was dressed smartly in a grey skirt, blazer, and heels. She looked at me appraisingly. “Do you have any close-toed shoes?” she asked delicately.  I did look pretty scruffy.  My clothes had been shmushed up in a suitcase for 72 hours and I didn’t have anything formal.  I put on the battered but closed-toed sandals I’d brought for camping in the desert the following week.  I realized I was wearing the same loud, flowery top I’d worn to an awkward meeting in London last summer where well-dressed attorneys had sneered down their noses at me.

We walked to the train station, uphill about five blocks.  We caught the train to Central Station, where I noticed the entertaining mix of names that were English (Epping, Richmond), Aboriginal (Katoomba, Bullaburra), and just funny sounding (Emu Plains, Rooty Hill).

We took another train to Strathfield, then caught a cab to the school.  I had begun to appreciate how long it takes to get around in Sydney. Heidi stays with a cousin in Strathfield some nights, which helps cut down on commuting time.  She doesn’t have her own apartment or car.  She always looks remarkably put together for someone who lives out of a suitcase.

The cab driver appeared to be Somali.  We have about 80,000 Somalis in Minnesota so I feel pretty confident about that.  He was on speaker phone talking to the dispatcher and carrying on a diatribe against the police.  He didn’t know where the school was and wasn’t paying attention to where he was going.

“They stop me because my passengers were not wearing seat belts and mark me down three points!” he complained.  Apparently this would involve a sizable fine and go on his driving record.  The dispatcher asked, “Do you have passengers right now?”  When he answered in the affirmative, she suggested they continue the conversation later.

“They only want money!” he said to us over his shoulder as he rubbed his thumb and fingers together to insinuate that the police would personally benefit from his citation.

“I don’t think police in Australia take bribes or get a cut of fines,” I replied, irritated. I didn’t know for sure in the moment, but I just looked it up and Australia ranks 13th out of 180 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Index (with 1 being least corrupt). Somalia is 180th (the US is 16th).  I guess if you come of age in the most corrupt country on earth, it’s hard to imagine a country that isn’t.

He went on for the duration of the ride about how it should be the passengers’ responsibility to put on their seat belts, even while acknowledging that the law says taxi drivers hold this responsibility.

“They were Chinese,” he declared, as if that explained everything.

St. Pat’s has a lovely, serene campus.

“Look! What are those birds!?” I exclaimed excitedly.

It took Heidi a moment to understand what I was excited about.  “Oh those?  Those are ibises.  They’re real pests.”  Well they were exotic to me.

And that was the first two hours of the day.

Back to the US of A

In Getsemani, we took photos of the brightly-painted houses.

And fantastic murals.

“It’s almost too perfect,” I remarked to Lynn.  Everywhere I turned was a beautifully-composed photo.  If you can’t take great photos in Cartagena, you can’t take them anywhere.

Even a corner store offered a photo opp of “Still Life with Egg Cartons.”

It was Saturday night and the streets were thronged with people out for a good time.  Who knew who was a tourist and who lived here?

“Air BnB is ruining Cartagena,” Nora had said.  “Rich people are buying places to rent to tourists and Cartagenans cannot afford to live in the center anymore.”  I’ve heard similar laments from Amsterdam to Venice.

We passed through a bustling square with restaurants and bars.  “Want to eat here?” Lynn asked.

It was almost completely dark and there were few streetlights, but naturally I said, “Nah … let’s walk around a bit before it’s pitch dark.  Maybe we can find more photo opps.”

Lynn agreed so we stepped off into a side street.  “Let’s use the trick we used yesterday,” Lynn suggested.  “Where we just keep taking right turns so we can’t get lost.”

“Good thinking.”

But of course the streets in Getsemani weren’t straight, or thoroughfares, and within 10 minutes we were lost.  There were streetlights, but half of them were broken.  People were hanging out drinking and playing cards on the sidewalks.  Murals had been replaced by ugly graffiti.  There was trash, broken and boarded up windows, and mangy dogs wandered past menacingly.  The smell of pot was everywhere.  There was no doubt that this was not a tourist area.

“If we were in Africa,” Lynn said under her breath, “This is when we would hear the drums getting nearer and nearer.”

I laughed.  We smiled at the people we passed, who were staring at us as if to say, “You’ve taken over the rest of our city.  This is our patch.  Just let us enjoy our Saturday night socializing in peace.”

We spent 15 minutes walking through a completely dark, deserted warehouse district.  “If we were in Mississippi,” I said, “This is when we would hear the hound dogs baying, closer and closer.”

After much drama in our heads, we emerged onto the square where we’d started.

“See?!” proclaimed Lynn, “Going in a circle worked, eventually.”

We ate at a nondescript Italian restaurant that had a nice outdoor patio.  I needed to use the bathroom but judging from the exterior it appeared to be a latrine.  Finally I plucked up my courage and entered.  It was a regular indoor bathroom, which I actually found a bit disappointing, but it did have this mysterious sign:

Do Not Point to the Toilet?  Do Not Shoot a Gun Down the Toilet? Do Not Throw a Brick in the Toilet?

And as always, too soon, it was time to go home.  A driver picked me up at 10:30 the next morning; Lynn would begin her arduous return via Amsterdam later in the day.  The airport was only five minutes from the center.

This sign left no room for interpretation.

“Drug trafficking is punishable by pain of death or life imprisonment in China, Qatar, Egypt, the UAE, Indonesia, Malaysia, and 28 other countries.”

In Miami, I went through immigration and customs and then walk-ran to get from the last gate on D concourse to Gate E16, as indicated on the American website.

I followed the signs for E 2-33.  When I reached E11, the next gate was E20.

“E16?” I asked two American Airlines agents.

“There is no Gate E16,” they replied dismissively.  I showed them the screen shot and they doubled down, acting as though I had made it up somehow. American—the airline that dragged that poor man off a plane when he wouldn’t give up his seat for no reason.

The video system went down midflight so, since the same had happened on my arrival flight, I never saw the end of The Color of Water.   They offered free drinks, so I had a beer and chatted with my seatmate.

“Isn’t Colombia a third world country?!” she asked.  “I’m not a racist—I have mi-norities in my family.”

Beautiful City in a Sad World

Colombia has been in the news lately in the US.  Last night there was this story on the PBS News Hour about the election, which is taking place the day this posts.  Near the end, it talks about all the activists who have been threatened—and more than 50 who have been killed—in the ongoing conflict for power.

So I wasn’t overreacting when I worried about our tour guide in Bogota being at risk.  I wrote that Lynn and I would follow him on Facebook and maybe raise a stink if anything happened to him but in reality, what could we really do?  If he suddenly stopped posting, what would we do—call the police in Colombia?  I’m sure they would get a good laugh out of that.  We could contact Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International.  I don’t know.  It’s another thing to worry about, along with all the plastic in the ocean and the violence in Gaza and Russian interference in the US elections.

Just for fun, I made a list of the first three titles of emails I saw in a typical morning at work:

And here is a sampling of my daily dose of funding opportunities from the US government:

  • Bureau of International Narcotics-Law Enforcement, Combating Wildlife Trafficking in sub-Saharan Africa
  • Health Services and Economic Research on the Treatment of Drug, Alcohol, and Tobacco Use
  • National Technical Assistance Resource Center for the Prevention of Sexual Violence
  • Investigation of the Transmission of Kaposi Sarcoma-Associated Herpesvirus
  • NIH Collaborative Cross Mouse Model Generation and Discovery of Immunoregulatory Mechanisms

That last one is kind of amusing, until you really think about what will happen to the poor mouse.

In one of my daily international news digests this week, there was an article (behind a paywall so I can’t provide a link) about the Colombian government conducting a census of Venezuelan refugees. A few excerpts:

“Exact numbers of people who have arrived are hard to come by and it is difficult to ascertain if people intend to stay in Colombia or move to another country in South America or the Caribbean.

“The lack of accurate data influences the way the United States State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development, and NGOs can plan for and respond to the crisis, a problem the Colombian government hopes the census will help solve. According to [Felipe] Muñoz, there are 30,000 Venezuelan children in the Colombian public school system, and 25,000 in the child care system. Twenty-five thousand Venezuelans have been provided free medical care by Colombia’s public health system.

“The Colombian government also intends to set up a formal process for Colombians who had fled their own country during a decades-long civil war for Venezuela, but now seek to return home. This includes children that have a parent from each country but were born in Venezuela and do not have Colombian identity papers.

‘They have the right to be Colombian,’ Muñoz said.”

This almost makes me weep.  What a contrast between how Colombia, where the average monthly salary is $692, treats refugees vs. my country—where the average monthly salary is $3,428.

We are a country living with an epidemic of fear and hatred.

Lynn and I slept the sleep of the dead after our five-hour drive and two-hour walking tour.

Breakfast was on the rooftop restaurant, which had great views.  That’s the Cathedral in the distance.

We noted that the hotel had witch points on some of the rooflines.  Nora had told us this was a Colonial-era building requirement by the Catholic Church—to keep witches out of buildings.  I guess it works, because we never saw a witch, inside or out.

Soon we were out on the street.  Here’s the Cathedral again, in the distance.  Such a beautiful city.

The interior was cool and quiet.

Lynn led us on to Iglesia San Pedro Claver.  St. Peter Claver, as we know him in the US, was a priest from Barcelona, the first saint of the new world, and—so the legend goes—a champion of slaves.