Category Archives: Poverty

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  Murals had been replaced by ugly graffiti.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.”

Waterworld, What a World

I’m not sure why we were driven five hours from Tayrona to Cartagena, but Lynn and I agreed it was important that we did because it showed us sides of Colombia we wouldn’t otherwise have seen.

We drove south along the coast past more beautiful beaches.  If we had flown from Santa Marta to Cartagena we might have been left with the impression that all of Colombia was unspoiled.

But soon we were driving over a very long causeway with what I can only describe as water-logged slums on either side. I found some photos of the place, Tasajeras, online.

This area stretched along a couple of miles.  Our driver said something about the residents being dependent on tankers for clean water.  Ironic, given that they were surrounded by water, but it made sense.  There were no signs that the houses had indoor plumbing.

And here we were, sitting in air-conditioned comfort behind tinted glass, our suitcase contents probably more valuable than the entire contents of one of these homes.  In dollar terms, anyway.

Everywhere I go, I am very conscious of being a one percenter.  I’m not a one percenter in the US, but I imagine that, compared with the population of the planet, my net worth is higher than 99% of the rest of my fellow humans.  At home, I am probably solidly in the middle, which is fine with me.

As I’ve written before, I started my adult life at 17 by getting pregnant, going on welfare, and moving into subsidized housing.  I’ve worked hard to get where I am, but I know firsthand that the vast majority of people in the world can never get ahead no matter how hard they work because they have no social safety net to support them until they get traction.  And the US is heading backward in that direction.

So I have donations to certain causes automatically deducted from my bank account (HIAS is one of my favorites).  I volunteer to do some small part in fighting mass incarceration in the US, and I work for a nonprofit that supports people who have been affected by war trauma.

Lately I have been trying to buy less plastic.  It’s so hard. Everything is packaged in plastic.  I got an Amazon order last week where the item came inside a small plastic tub, wrapped in a plastic bag, mailed in a giant bubble-wrap plastic envelope.  It made me feel sick.  I set the envelope aside and meant to write to Amazon to complain, but I never did.  Now, recalling all the plastic and other waste choking this watery community in Colombia, I wish I had made the effort.

When I travel I tell myself I am supporting the local economy.  Is this true? Would it be better if I stayed home, reduced my carbon footprint, and send a check for the amount of the tour to some Colombian charity?  I don’t know.

We drove through Barranquilla, a city of over a million. I’m sure there are many very nice areas of Barranquilla, but this was pretty much what we saw for 20 minutes as we passed the outskirts.

“Shakira,” said the driver out of the blue, pointing to the city.  Apparently the hip-shaking pop singer is from here.

We drove through a nice residential area down a wide boulevard with signs that announced “Free Wireless,” and just for kicks I tried to connect but we moved on too quickly.  That’s great that they’re making internet available in public parks, I guess.

We stopped at a light and two young men started washing the windshield.

“Venezuelans,” said our driver, as he rolled down his window and gave them some money.  “I don’t need my windshield cleaned but they have no other way to earn money,” he explained.

So a few of my tourist dollars did trickle down.

Two more hours.  The driver’s phone rang and he handed it to me.  It was someone from Responsible Travel.

“We have changed your hotel to a much nicer hotel,” she informed me.

Um, okay?  Who knows what happened and it doesn’t matter.  I was just ready to get to a hotel, any hotel.

Fat Cats, Fat Ladies, Fat Men

Daniella led us from the light tube square past a lovely old warehouse that was now the Education Ministry.

We entered a pedestrian mall lined with stalls selling everything from “Adidas” to batteries to bananas.

Here is Daniella explaining the significance of some indigenous jewellery.  “My mother doesn’t believe in religion and isn’t superstitious, but when I was a little girl and I got sick, she did buy one of these charms and tied it to my foot—just in case,” she ended with air quotes.  I bought two for the little kids in my life.

After a few blocks we began to enter an more open area leading to a very large square.  There was a beautiful colonial church—tainted by the fact that slaves had been sold in front—next to an art deco-era office building.

And then the Boteros began. I’d always thought of Botero as a novelty artist—an artist for whom it’s true that “a little goes a long way.”  But somehow, seen outdoors, in situ in the country of the artist’s birth, I became a fan. Here’s Ricardo taking a snap of Roxana.

This part of the tour must drive guides crazy.  We stopped every 10 feet to take photos.

This was my favorite.

We stopped for a coffee in a café overlooking the square. There were a lot of LLLs (large ladies in lycra) strolling by.

“I wonder if Botero was inspired by the women of Medellin,” I asked, hoping I didn’t sound like I was fat shaming, “or were the women of Medellin inspired by Botero?”

Daniella pointed out that all his figures looked like they’d been inflated with an air pump, not just the women. “He means to represent bloated political figures, and egos, and sometimes he’s just being humorous,” she said.

Our waiter had really been hustling to keep everyone served.  “He is Venezuelan,” Daniella said quietly. He is probably working illegally so they don’t have to pay him full wages.  It’s a big problem.”

“So there are Venezuelans here, in Medellin?” I asked.  “In the US, we read that they’re all on the border.”

“No!  They’re everywhere,” Daniella replied emphatically.

“And in the US they’re referred to as migrants,” I said, “probably because if they were officially declared refugees then the UN and US and other countries would be obligated to help them with funding.”

“Yes!” Roxana added, “They are refugees, not migrants!  ‘Migrants’ sounds voluntary.”

“They have no food, no petrol, no toilet paper,” said Daniella.  “How could you choose to stay if your children are hungry?”

We walked across the square toward the Metro.  This building, which looks like a cathedral or palace, is a government office building.

We rode the train a few more stops then got off to take the cable car system to the top of a mountain.  This is not a sight seeing ride, it’s public transport.

Up we went, over sprawling shanty towns. Six or eight people could sit comfortably in each car.

There was a stop midway.

We stayed on and kept going up, up, up.

Daniella kept saying the last stop was “RV Park,” which had me wondering if there would be trailer homes at the top.  Finally I consulted my Metro map and realized it was Arvi Park.

We wandered around the neighborhood at the top.  I imagine the cable cars solve any number of problems, like shrinking people’s commute times and helping women get around without being harassed, or kids being bullied or recruited into gangs.  Imagine, just sailing over the heads of your tormentors!

A little boy was running a street pet shop selling ducklings, rabbits and hamsters.

We walked to a cliff-side park where men were pushing little kids in what looked like go carts and young lovers were trying for a bit of privacy.  The smell of weed was pervasive.

There was a lot of poverty, but also a lot of art and people having fun out and about and clear efforts by some to improve their lots by adding second stories to their homes or painting them bright colors.

This mural says, “They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.”

Over the Hills

One of my proposals was due in two days and things had gone seriously off piste. It may be that, because we are essentially a mental health organization, we have a way of working that is consultative in the extreme.  When people edit drafts of proposals they never comment, “This number should be 50.”  Instead they write, “I sort of think this number could be 50, but what does everyone else think?”  And then everyone piles on and adds comments until all the edits look like the Babylonian Talmud.

I often suggest that people jump on Skype and talk to each other and make decisions, but with time differences and poor internet and … well … Skype—the program we love to hate—that’s challenging.

A colleague had offered to incorporate everyone’s comments into the proposal.  I just had to give it a once-over to cut down the length and make sure it was clear and responded to the donor’s intent and requirements.  I was free to go with Lynn on an excursion the next day.

The next day.  An email from my colleague to the whole group, “I’m sick and there’s no way I can do these edits. I’m sorry!  I’m signing off now.”

Shit.  It was on me now.

“Will there be internet at the venue?” I asked Lynn.  She didn’t know; Richard Googled it and the website didn’t say anything about internet.

“But it’s an event venue,” Lynn reasoned.  “It has to have internet.”

“Agreed.  It has to have internet.”

Lynn is on the board of Grampian Women’s Aid, one member of a consortium of Scottish domestic abuse organizations.  The event was a celebration marking their 40 years of providing refuge for survivors and advocating for stronger laws to protect women and children.

It took us an hour to get to there.  Richard had hand-drawn a map for us; I held it and nervously called out the turns.  “Left before this bridge!”  “Right after the abandoned pub!”  We only got slightly lost once, which is amazing for Lynn and me.  Why didn’t we use a GPS?  I don’t recall, but we passed through one of the most wild, empty areas of Scotland.  An old-school GPS wouldn’t have known about the washed-out bridge; a smart phone-based app needs 3G, which was iffy in some areas.

I’m looking at a map of Aberdenshire now, trying to figure out where we were. I love the names but none of them sound familiar: Haugh of Glass.  Glenkindie Towie. Bellabeg Strathdon. Longmorn Fogwatt. We may have been in Cairngorns National Park.  I don’t know.

We passed this creepy gate.  I hope it was a joke.

I can’t recall the name of the venue, but it was lovely.  We met some of the other board members in the café to have lunch before the event, which was redundant because there was so much great food at the event.  More great food!  Here is my lunch.  A fresh fish fest!  I forgot all about my proposal.

But after lunch reality hit and while Lynn and her fellow volunteers were setting up, I tried to get an internet connection.  This was complicated by the fact that my laptop battery has been dead for five years so it has to be plugged in.  I walked around with it and finally got an off-on connection and an electric outlet in a back room.

People think everybody, everywhere, is online.  Well everybody isn’t, and doesn’t.  People in Ethiopia.  People in rural Scotland.  People in Nebraska.  Poor people.  Elderly people.  Me.

But I managed to just focus’til I got ‘er done then got enough of a connection to send it off.

The event was very moving.  About 100 women and men were in attendance, including one of the local lords and a woman politician.  This is artwork by children in refuge.

The most memorable speaker was a woman who had been involved from the start.

The food was fantastic and provided gratis by the caterer.

I felt grateful.  A former battered woman myself, I was now eating strawberry and cream tarts in Scotland to celebrate 40 years of aid to battered women.  There is so much good work being done in this world by so many.

Seeing, Really Seeing

Am I a bad, shallow person to enjoy places like Liberty so thoroughly?  Only the one percent can actually buy anything there, right?  True, although I did buy some nail varnish, as they call nail polish in Britain.  It cost £12 ($15)—the most expensive nail polish I’ve ever bought—but I love the color and it reminds me of my day there.

But no regular person can actually afford to buy a pair of pants at Harrods.  Isn’t that wrong?  Isn’t it criminal that people spend £1,500 on baby carriages made by Maserati?  Or £2,000 for jeweled clutch purses, or £200 for a canvas tote bag because it has the Liberty look and label?

Isn’t it outrageous that people spend £95 for a small plate with a Liberty design on it, when they won’t give £5 to the homeless person sitting on the pavement outside the store?

Yes, it is outrageous.  And I’m glad there are people designing, making, selling, and buying beautiful things in this world.

Maybe, if the contents of all the high-end department stores were liquidated and the proceeds given to homeless people, those folks would get new clothes, get jobs, find apartments, fall in love, and live happily ever after.

Nah.

Some would, some wouldn’t. Some might use the money to start a small business, and build it into a business empire … like Harrods.  Some have such intractable problems that no amount of money or social service intervention can solve them.  Some poor people would be offended by the offer of cash and continue on their own path of working their way up.

No, it’s much more complicated. I’ve worked in nonprofit organizations almost my whole career and I know that rich people and businesses can be part of the solution.

I just searched the Liberty website for the terms “donations,” “charity,” “corporate social responsibility,” and “philanthropy” and came up empty handed.  It would be nice to think that they hired ex offenders or donated unsold shoes to charity auctions.

I would be happy to help them start a corporate philanthropy program if they would just allow me to work from that green velvet sofa.

For better or worse, I have an “eye” for color, composition, and all things beautiful, whether they’re manmade or natural.  You may be thinking, “Well everyone loves beautiful things!” but you would be wrong.  I have friends who have nothing on their walls.  Nothing.  No art, not even Art-in-a-Box from Target.

They come to my house, look around, and say, “Wow, you have so much stuff on your walls.  Interesting.”  As if it has never occurred to them that they could do the same, much less surround themselves with beautiful, interesting, uplifting objects.

I have been told that I notice things, in general.  The other day, I was in an old-timey grocery store in St. Paul and said to my friend, “Hey!  When was the last time you saw a grocery store with a ‘Grits’ aisle?”

She laughed and said, “You always notice things like that.”

Doesn’t everyone?  I guess not.

I asked my landlady, “What are those tracks?”

“What tracks?”

“The ones there—that look like a snake made them,” I pointed.

“Oh, those.  I’ve never noticed them.  Maybe a mouse?”

I am in a hyper-state of noticing when I’m traveling.  It was good to know I could see things—delightful, humorous things—right at home.  This new year, I’m going to try to pull it in even closer, and notice things in my house that I use or pass by—sightless—every day.

Back at Fortnum and Mason, Heidi and I worked our way slowly through the food hall.

I bought a box of Earl Grey tea for Lynn and a box of English Breakfast for myself.  I didn’t buy these exact containers but you get the idea of the packaging.

Yes, they cost more than a canister of PG Tips at Tesco.  They may not have been grown in a socially-responsibly, environmentally-sustainable manner.  But so what?  They’re beautiful, and six months later I am still dipping into my stash and enjoying the tea and the memory.

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.

Despite

Life has been throwing a lot my way lately, or at least throwing a lot at people I love.  I debated whether to write about it, then remembered that the tagline of this blog is “Living well despite what life throws at you.”

It’s one thing to live large when everything is going well, it’s quite another to keep embracing life when things are not so great.

My life is fine, aside from the new upstairs neighbor, who I suspect of making wine late at night (stomp, stomp, stomp!). I have spoken to him and it is better, but I have to wear ear plugs a couple nights a week.  I worry that the people who are renting my condo while I’m in the UK/Europe/Ethiopia this summer will be bothered.

Work has been a pressure cooker; this week I submitted almost $5 million worth of funding applications for projects in Iraq and Ethiopia.  The teams were dispersed around the globe, from Kurdistan to The Gambia, which has only 14% Internet penetration. I do get a buzz out of pulling everything together to meet deadlines, and then I collapse in exhaustion.

On to the people I love: Vince broke up with his girlfriend, and for some reason it hit me hard.  I was so happy that Vince had, for a while, a fun relationship that didn’t involve drugs or alcohol.  But I realized my reaction was partly about me.  A few weeks after I turned 40, my serious boyfriend dumped me.  I wondered if that was it—I would never meet anyone again.  After all, I was 40!  Vince will be 39 this year.  I have no idea if he feels like it’s over—I hope not—but I did.

The thing that’s really thrown me is hearing from Son #2 after a four-year silence.

I wrote a series of seven posts about Vince’s brother, who I gave up for adoption. I’ve never written about how I found him after many attempts and despite Catholic Charities’ best efforts to thwart us both.

I hesitated to write about this, but then—catatonic on the couch after all my proposals were done—I caught an episode of Call the Midwife that had an adoption storyline and I was reminded that the silence and shame that surrounds adoption has got to be broken.

Vince and I met him once, over 15 years ago.  We met at a restaurant; I can’t remember exactly when or where because it was so surreal.

His name was the same as one of my brothers, but I will call him by the name I gave him, Isaac.  He looked a lot like Vince but with different coloring.  I asked if I could give him a hug and he said, “Of course!” and hugged me for a long time.  Several hours of talking passed like seconds.  We hugged goodbye and pledged to stay in touch.

It didn’t’ happen.  Isaac’s adoptive mother was opposed to him meeting me, and he was already going behind her back.  But he and Vince continued to meet up and developed a bond; Vince wrote about it here.  It wasn’t a happy ending, but there’s hope now that Vince is in recovery.

Isaac sent me an email out of the blue about five years ago, with photos of his wife and kids.  My grandchildren, who I’ve never met.  His wife has the same name as my mother.

He said he would like for me to meet them, but then he disappeared again.  I didn’t pursue it him because I didn’t want to be disappointed again.

Isaac wrote to me again last month.

His wife has Multiple Sclerosis.  Severe, aggressive MS that affects her vision, speech, and mobility. He and I have been writing for about a month now, and I am hopeful we can stay in touch this time, but it’s stirring up a lot of regret, resentment, love, and hope.