Category Archives: terrorism

Tea and Training

It wasn’t all nonstop fun and adventure in England.  Because I had been to Ethiopia, I had to watch a security video.  It had been a month since I’d returned and I finally got around to watching it.

There are all sorts of ex US Marines and ex MI5 types who sell security training to nongovernmental organizations.  I don’t want to poo-poo the seriousness of the security risks in some locations.  Aid workers do get kidnapped, raped, and killed.  But it’s rare.  The worst risk I ran in Ethiopia, I think, was getting hit by a truck.  A lot of people who are new to international work might assume that kidnaping is the biggest danger, while they’re stepping out into a chaotic street full of speeding land rovers and tuk tuks making up rules as they go along.

I plunked down on the couch with a cuppa (a cup of tea).  Below is another iconic item you find in British homes—the tea bag caddy.  They come in an endless assortment of shapes, materials, and designs.  You can buy one for 99p.  They are always stained with tea, like mine below, and usually piled with wet, cold used tea bags.

The tea bag caddy is not to be confused with another item of the same name.

This second item holds a selection of tea bags.  This is often given as a hostess gift and politely stored in the back of a cupboard until the tea becomes fossilized.  This is because, like anyone, Brits have their regular tea they are accustomed to—usually English Breakfast or Earl Grey.  They may try a bag of oolong green tea with ginger hibiscus super antioxidant goji berry essence—once—which will be enough.

Most homes have a box of PG Tips, which is referred to as “builders’ tea.”  This means it’s strong—strong enough to get a construction worker revved up to go back to his heavy labour.  It’s a utility tea—you only need to dunk it into hot water two or three times to get a massive hit of caffeine; no herbal tea “steep for seven and a half minutes in 140 degree water” here.

Plus they have an amusing spokesmonkey.

Back to the security training.  I try to keep an open mind and assume I will learn something new.  But I have watched similar videos at least four times before, and I’m also a woman who lives alone in the city and who travels the world on her own.  So yes, I am aware that I should always lock my hotel room door, and wear a seatbelt, and not leave my drink unattended in a bar.

The video was narrated by a robotic female voice.  I felt like I was on hold for an hour with a nightmare call to my internet provider customer service line.

The video was really a powerpoint with whiz-bang transitions. The clip art below isn’t from the security training, but it featured menacing versions of these ubiquitous blue playdoh powerpoint people.

The internet at Sam’s was so slow that the training kept freezing and shutting down and I’d have to restart it.  I was missing pieces of it, I knew, but it seemed to be all about men in balaclavas kidnapping aid workers.  This would be, of course, anyone’s worst fear.  It’s also how they sell these security trainings.

Again, I don’t want to downplay the seriousness of using common sense and taking precautions.  You prepare for the worst and hope for the best, as they say.

Smarty pants me, there was a test at the end and I couldn’t pass it because I had missed one of the scenarios:

“Your car is stopped at a security check point, and soldiers demand you get out of the vehicle.  What do you do?”

  1. Loudly inform them that you are American/British/Etc.
  2. Get out, then run in a zig zag pattern into the bush.
  3. Politely refuse. Do not make eye contact.
  4. Offer them a small bribe.

None of these seemed like a good idea so I chose a different one until I passed. I am recreating this from memory, so don’t ask me the correct answer.

Back to Reality

This is the final post in a series about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

Our last night in Toledo.  We had dinner at a restaurant called Dehera d’ Majazul.  I don’t know what that name means but it sounded nice.  The food was unremarkable, but the waitress was memorable.  She looked to be about 18, she was very pregnant, and she had eyes tattooed on the insides of her forearms.  She spoke no English and I found myself looking at the eyes on her arms instead of the ones on her face as I tried to make conversation.

Not for the first time, I had assumed a person with tattoos would be rough and hard.  But she was sweet.  This was her first baby, she was very excited, and no, it wasn’t hard working on her feet.  Well, she was a baby herself, like I was when I had Vince. You can do anything when you’re 18.

The Toledo train station may have been the most ornate building we saw in all of Spain.  Here are a few photos to give you an idea.  I’ve got a a new camera in the works, so you won’t have to wince at my shitty photos much longer.

They screened our bags before letting us onto the platform, but the bored “guard” couldn’t have been bothered to look at the monitor. Really, what is the point of making passengers line up and hoist our bags onto and off of a conveyor belt?  I guess it was all for show.  Some politician in Madrid can say, “We take security very seriously.”

You would think the Spaniards, of all people, really would take it seriously, since Madrid trains were the target of terrorist bombings in 2005 that killed nearly 200 people and injured 2,000.

The arrived in Madrid in half an hour, and it was like going through a portal to another world.  We left behind dark, cramped, steeped-in-medieval-history Toledo for the sprawling, brightly colored high-rise apartment buildings that run for miles before you enter Madrid itself.

Naturally, the taxi stand was on the opposite side of the station, across a treacherously busy thoroughfare, and there were no signs for it.  We asked strangers until we found it.  The driver didn’t know how to find the hotel.  It wasn’t in his GPS and he seemed to have lost his map-reading skills—if he had ever had them—since like our waitress he also appeared to be 18.  He asked if we knew how to get there and handed us the map.  Lynn and I rolled our eyes at each other.

Eventually, after much muttering of mierda! and puta madre! we arrived at our hotel, a functional place near the airport.  It was only 5:00, so the bar and restaurant weren’t open.

We decided to go for a wander around the neighborhood, because unlike most airport hotels which are in deserted warehouse areas, this one was set in a regular neighborhood.

I quickly spotted a pair of blue velvet pants in a shop window.  “I’ve got to have those!” I exclaimed, pulling the door open.  “I’ve always wanted a pair of blue velvet pants.”

“Oh please,” Lynn shuddered, “Don’t say pants!”  Because pants, of course, means underpants to an English person.  It was a Chinese shop full of the cheapest, tawdriest clothes you’ve ever seen.  I loved it!

Next we rootled up and down the aisles of a grocery.  If you love pig-derived foods, you’d love this store.

I always buy Vince foods with funny names when I travel, and this time it was Bonka.  What a great name for … coffee?

Fancy some Chilly gel for your intimate places?  I love the literal name for stain remover—quitamanchas—“get out spots.”

Our final stop was a hardware store, which offered every size of paella pan.

And that was that.  We had a salty, fatty dinner at the hotel, slept, jumped on a shuttle at 6:30 a.m., and flew out in our separate directions.

In the bathroom in the immigration hall in Minneapolis/St. Paul airport, there was this sign.

Sigh.  Vacation over.  Soon, back to work raising money for torture rehabilitation.

The End of America

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

Before I move on to Spain, I’m inserting a few real-time updates.

It’s weird to be writing about the November election almost three months later. I recall my sense of unreality.  Unfortunately, that hasn’t changed. I can’t believe we are now using the words “President” and “Trump” together.  I am still in a state of denial, maybe because I haven’t figured out what to do, or how to live, in this new world.

I went on the women’s march in St. Paul with 100,000 other like-minded men, women, and children to protest the new administration’s policies and tone.  It was the first day in months I felt optimistic, but also, sadly, the last.

Conservatives think that liberals hate America.  That’s unfair.  We criticize our country when it acts wrongly.  That doesn’t mean we hate America.  It means we hold it to high standards.  For instance, one thing that has always made me proud of America is all the refugees we take in.  It’s not as many as 100 years ago.  It’s not as many as Germany.  Still, we were on track to accept 110,000 refugees in 2017, with about 10,000 slots designated for Syrians.  That’s one of the things that makes America great.  Oops, made.

All that is on hold for four months.  If and when it restarts, the number of refugees will be cut in half.  Syrians will be banned, along with people from other Muslim-majority countries except the ones Trump want to make deals with, like Saudi Arabia, the main producers of terrorists, including 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers.

Why is Trump fixated on Syrians?  I don’t believe there have been any terrorist attacks perpetrated, anywhere, by Syrians.  In my opinion, Syrians are victims of war and terrorism.  But there are a lot of Syrian refugees, and they are in the news frequently, so maybe they’re just an easy target.  Most Americans haven’t heard of Tunisia, which actually produces a lot of terrorists.

The mood where I work, the Center for Victims of Torture, is dark.  Our clients in the US are afraid they’ll be deported, or that their families will never be allowed to join them.  We wonder if we will lose our government funding, and thus our jobs.  We worry this administration will return to the use of torture, which is illegal under US and international law.

There’s so much going down.  One final item: Donald Trump managed to talk about Holocaust Remembrance Day without mentioning Jews or antisemitism.  Was it intentional?  Ignorance?  As a Jew, I think it’s ominous. The Holocaust didn’t start with gas chambers, it started with nationalist words and laws against certain groups and bullying of the media and control of the messaging coming out of government agencies.

Thanks for reading this.  You probably already knew most of it.  Now you know why I write about travel and not politics most of the time.

My son and I went on a small adventure recently.  He had asked if I wanted to see John Cleese in person on a certain date, and I said, “sure!”  John Cleese is an English comedian and actor best known for the Monty Python movies and Fawlty Towers TV series.

What I didn’t realize until after Vince bought the tickets was that the show was on a Monday night, five hours away in Green Bay, Wisconsin.  So I took two days off work, got a room at EconoLodge, and we went on a road trip.

It was really fun.  We joked about the cheap hotel and the terrible steak dinner we had at Texas Roadhouse.  We visited Lambeau Field, home of the Green Bay Packers football team, which fits nicely into the neighborhood unlike our own new US Bank Stadium that looks like the Death Star.

We watched Monty Python and the Holy Grail, then listened to John Cleese tell stories for an hour.  Did you know Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin financed the making of the Holy Grail, and that George Harrison paid for the Life of Brian, which he considers the troupe’s best film?  Cleese is almost 80, and still full of piss and vinegar. It was good to Just Laugh.

cleese

Tsouris, Tikkun Olam, Teshuvah

Another week, another shooting of an unarmed black man by police.  Three, actually: in Columbus, Ohio; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Charlotte, North Carolina.  The kid shot in Columbus was carrying a BB gun; you can understand why that could put a cop on edge.  The cop who shot the man in Tulsa has been charged with manslaughter.  That seems just, except it’s a female cop.   She may be guilty, but I think some of the officers involved in previous shootings (all men) were as well, and most were never charged.   Is a woman seen as easier to prosecute?  No one can agree whether the guy in Charlotte was carrying a gun or a book.  A book.  I think even I could tell a book from a gun.  It’ll be interesting to watch these investigations unfold.

It is emerging that no one who should be collecting statistics on police shootings has been doing so.  The best source seems to be the Washington Post.  Its running list illustrates something similar to the situation I’ve written about in our prisons.

Of the 1,500 people killed by police between January 2015 and July 11 of this year, 49% have been white while 25% were black.  Whites comprise 62% of the US population and blacks are 13%.  Does that mean blacks commit more crime, or that they are singled out and treated differently by police?  That’s impossible to know unless all the white people who have committed crimes and gotten away with them step up and admit it.

There were also two terrorist incidents this week.  You probably heard about the man who planted four bombs in New York and New Jersey.  The police managed to take him alive, even though he actually had a gun and was firing at them.  Hmm.  Ahmad Rahami was born in Afghanistan, came to the US when he was seven, and was apparently radicalized after visiting Afghanistan.

In St. Cloud, Minnesota, where my son Vince was incarcerated for six months, a man attacked nine people with a knife. Dahir Aden was a Somali born in Kenya and also came to the US when he was seven.  He was apparently radicalized by online ISIS propaganda.

People were injured but no one died in either episode except Aden.  To paraphrase a blog post Vince wrote about the St. Cloud attack, we needn’t live in fear of terrorist attacks, because these guys are incompetent.  The ones who should live in fear are African American men.

So much tsouris in the world.  That’s Yiddish for suffering.

As I’ve written before, Vince and I have been getting involved in Jewish Community Action’s campaign to reform the criminal justice system, including mass incarceration.  On Monday night we’ll attend a phone bank event where we’ll call ex offenders to make sure they know they may be eligible to vote and to tell them how to register if they are eligible.  Vince may not be able to vote, but he can help others to do so.

Next Thursday, we will speak at a JCA event hosted at my workplace, the Center for Victims of Torture.  A CVT psychotherapist will talk about the psychological effects of imprisonment.  A CVT volunteer physical therapist will speak about the physical effects, and Vince will talk about the fallout on relationships.  If you are local, please join us for either or both or other events.

So much tsouris.   I feel my share of despair and helplessness, but doing something helps.  I’ve been estranged from organized Judaism since Vince’s troubles began, when our rabbis were less than supportive.  Lately, I’ve felt pulled back toward the community by my involvement in JCA.  That’s because the essence of Judaism is tikkun olam, or healing the world.  Doing something to right injustice, even if progress is slow.

Last week I took a big step and went to my old synagogue because I heard there was a new prayer book that acknowledges doubters and atheists.  I went to a study session with one of the (new) rabbis was a dead ringer for my aunt.  I don’t believe in signs, but this did make me feel like I was literally returning to the family.

Notes from an Anglo-Irish-German-Czech-American Jewish Atheist

This is the latest post in a series about a road trip to New Orleans that starts here.

Desra gave us a ride back to the Air B&B.  Inside, Lynn said pensively, “If I went to dinner in London with someone who was Afro Caribbean, I don’t think the subject of race would even come up—but we spent the whole dinner tonight talking about race.”

Of course they don’t have African Americans in England.  The race labels were confusing when I lived there, especially who was covered by “Asian.”  In Minnesota, Asians are Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Lao, and Thai.  By far the largest group, the Hmong, are mountain tribes people from Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, and China—where they are called the Miao. That’s pronounced “meow.”  Our newest arrivals are the Karen, an ethnic group from Burma/Myanmar.

In England, an Asian is most likely from India, Pakistan, or Bangladesh.

Lynn herself is Anglo Indian because her ancestry is English and Indian.  Note that the Anglo comes first, whereas in the U.S., we say “African American” or “Muslim American.”

This labeling is all very fraught with the peril of offending one side or another.

“What if you were having dinner with a Pakistani or other Muslim?” I asked Lynn.  “Would race or religion be a theme in every angle of the conversation?”

“Hmmm…maybe,” replied Lynn. “Yes, that might be it.  It’s not that we don’t have prejudice in the UK.  But I think it’s the Muslim population that’s getting the brunt of the suspicion and animosity, especially since September 11 and seven seven.”

July 7, 2007—the day on which 52 people were killed and 700 injured on the London transport system in an Islamist terrorist attack.  I remember watching it on the news, in Spanish, from my bed in a hotel in Cusco, Peru, where I was vomiting my guts out into an ice bucket after eating some bad guinea pig. That’s a story for another post, but here’s a free tip for you: never use a hotel ice bucket for ice.

We reference so much with these simple dates: 9/11, 7/7.   So much has changed.  In the U.S., half the population—the conservative half—replaced its constant fear of a mass attack by communists with fear of a Muslim attack, which has made possible the rise of a demagogue like Donald Trump.  The strange thing is, they don’t fear the white guy next door with 50 guns who just lost his job and his wife and is acting strangely—just “the Muslims.”

The third major terrorist attack in the west was 11-M, the train bombings in Madrid on March 11, 2004.  Almost 200 people were killed and 2,000 were injured.  I don’t remember where I was that day.  But I do vividly recall being in Spain sometime after 9/11 but before 11-M studying Spanish.  I was chatting with a British woman and somehow 9/11 came up.

“Now you lot know what we’ve been living with all these years from the IRA,” she said casually about the attack in which nearly 3,000 people died.

Back in St. Louis after a good night’s sleep, Lynn and I were preparing for our last day on the road.

“What do we do with the doughnuts?” she asked.

I carried the box out with us, thinking I would take them home to Vince.  Then I spotted a kid on the porch of the house next door and approached him.

“Hey kid, want a box of doughnuts?”  He was chubby and his eyes said Yes as he also backed away from me toward the door and called, “Daddy!”  The father came rushing outside, looking panicked. I could just picture myself at the police station: “No officer, really! I just wanted to give him the doughnuts; I wasn’t trying to lure him into my car.”

I offered the box to the father, who looked inside to make sure they really were doughnuts (I wonder what else he suspected could be inside?  Snakes?).  He looked up at me with a grin, thanked me, and the two of them hurried inside, where I could hear the boy calling out excitedly, “Mom! We got doughnuts!”

Gittin’ in Trouble

This is the seventh post in a series about Cuba that starts here.

Before we left Santiago de Cuba, we took an excursion to the nearby Parque Nacional de Gran Peidra—a sort of national park. I love the outdoors and got excited that we might go on a hike, but we only skirted the park on our way to our real destination, Guantanamo Bay.

If you look at Google maps, it’s really confusing. What you would think was the U.S. territory with the detention center is marked as Cuban territory. Google has steered me wrong before, mostly memorably in Nairobi where it sent me to a slum instead of to the Ford Foundation’s offices, so I would never count on it except for a rough approximation.

Guantanamo

There was excitement on the bus as we got closer to Guantanamo. “Get out your OFAC letter!” someone exclaimed. “We’re being tailed by the CIA!”

As I mentioned previously, we were required to carry letters from the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control at all times to show we were there legally. I couldn’t imagine we would get anywhere near Gitmo—you didn’t have to see it to know it would be surrounded by 20-foot razor-wire fences and heavily-armed guards. What were we going to do, ram the gate? That would put a crimp in my plans to apply for jobs with the CIA and the Foreign Service!

But then the bus stopped, and most of us waited while a couple of Interfaith Task Forcers got off and held an animated conversation with the driver and our guide. Then we turned around and went back to Santiago. I will never know how the leaders of the Task Force talked our guide and the Cuban bus driver into driving to Guantanamo Bay, or how close we really got, or exactly where its limits are.

That’s the thing about travel, if you’re doing it right. You’ll come home shaking your head and laughing to yourself because there was some mysterious situation for which you’ll never have an explanation. That’s assuming no one got hurt or arrested, of course.

Now that I am working for the Center for Victims of Torture, it would be hugely prestigious to be able to say casually, “I was arrested at Guantanamo a couple years ago.”

CVT has been active in advocating for the closure of Guantanamo. First—obviously—because we, torture people there (yes, we, if you’re an American). Half the American population (and I think we can guess who their presidential candidates are) believe there’s nothing wrong with torture. “How we gonna catch the bad guys if we don’t torture people, huh?”

I could write 10 posts about why that’s a dumb statement, but for now I’ll just say, if you think torture is okay, go read someone else’s blog. And even if I thought it was okay, it’s still illegal.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which came about in response to the WWII and specifically the Holocaust, outlawed torture. Ronald Reagan signed the international Convention Against Torture in 1984. President Obama issued an executive order on his second day in office banning torture. In November last year, Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act, which “placed all U.S. government interrogations under the United States Army Field Manual on Interrogations, and requires that the International Committee of the Red Cross have prompt access to all prisoners in United States’ custody.” In other words, there are grownups in charge now.

Very few people know everything that’s gone on at Gitmo, but we do know that people have been detained indefinitely, without charge or trial. If you imagine yourself in one of those prisoner’s paper slippers, you will understand why they go on hunger strikes. We then subject them to another form of torture, forced feeding. If you wonder, “how bad could that be?” watch this video of the rapper Mos Def being force fed; he volunteered to show us what it really involves.

Back in Santiago, none of this was on my mind. My biggest concern was finishing my master’s and getting a job. Vince’s time in prison, and researching prison for this blog, changed all that.

Happy Christmas, Ten Years On

In keeping with my gradual transition to writing about unconventional travel and living abroad adventures, I’m looking back on the first Christmas I spent in the UK, 10 years ago.

I had learned a lot since arriving in October. Searching for housing, I had finally figured out that address numbers sometimes went up one side of a block and down the other. Also, many buildings just had names instead of numbers. The Oxfam head office was called John Smith House.

“House” was a misnomer because it was a modern, three-storey building in an industrial park across the motorway from the Mini Cooper factory, and 750 people worked there.

John Smith Houseatriumlobby

I could usually remember that the first floor was the “ground floor” and the second floor was the first floor. I had figured out that when my coworkers asked, “You awl right?” they weren’t concerned about my health; it was the same as someone in Minnesota asking, “How ya doin?” I was avoiding “creeping Americanisms” in my writing, as cautioned in the Oxfam writing manual, so was careful to write “storey” and “tonne” instead of “story” and “ton.” I was no longer taken aback when introduced to a 20-something coworker named Harriet, Richard, or Jane.

Most important, I had learned to avoid any references to my pants, as in, “I got my pants wet biking to work in the rain.” Trousers were pants, and pants were underwear. I loved the expression, “That’s just pants!” which meant something like “that’s insane!”

Everyone spoke in a low murmur. This was partly due to the open plan office, where six people shared one big desk, but I think it was also the culture. A few weeks after my arrival, a new Canadian employee came through for her induction (orientation), and her braying, Minnesota-like accent filled the whole building. One of those moments when I realized, “Ah, that’s what we sound like.”

At Oxfam, everyone walked fast. It was as if, by striding vigorously, they would personally Save the World.  My tall, ginger-haired colleague, Adele, was selling Palestinian olive oil out of her desk drawer. I enjoyed a daily fair-trade, organic chocolate bar from the cafeteria.  Oxfam had a Christmas bazaar in the atrium featuring beaded jewelry made by Masai woman who used the proceeds to buy goats.  Everyone was very earnest.

To be fair, the “Boxing Day”, or Indian Ocean, Earthquake and Tsunami (caution: upsetting video) had happened one year before, killing 230,000 people and leaving millions more without homes or livelihoods. Then, suicide bombers had struck the London transport system in July, killing 56 people and injuring over 700. The week I arrived in Oxford, an earthquake took 80,000 lives in Pakistan. People were reeling, but responding generously. Oxfam had received a tsunami of donations, internally referred to as the “Cat Fund”—for Catastrophe Fund—and rumour had it that they were struggling to do enough, fast enough, to respond.

But for now, Oxfam was abuzz with Christmas cheer. I look in my diary (date book) from that time, and I was busy meeting colleagues after work at pubs named The Marsh Harrier, the Eagle and Child, The Bear, Angel and Greyhound, and Jude the Obscure.

They called Christmas Crimbo, and presents pressies. There were crimbo crackers for sale, too, which are not a crunchy, salty snack, but shiny cardboard tubs “cracked” open at the festive table and containing a Christmas crown and trinkets.

C&CCrackers and CrownsC&C2

There was a panto in the Oxfam atrium, so to use all my new words in a sentence: “Are you going to the crimbo panto or shopping for pressies and crackers after work?”

And what is a panto? It’s slang for pantomime, an extravaganza that takes weeks of planning and involves elaborate costumes, jokes, dancing and singing, skits, and slapstick. Apparently it’s also done by families and in theatres but the only one I’ve ever seen was in the Oxfam atrium. Our usually-serious employees were dressed up as fairytale characters and making fun of themselves, our bosses, and our work. Very healthy, I thought. Take life seriously most of the time, then go all-out silly for a week.

The Queen’s Christmas Message that year was beautiful, in my opinion, and more relevant than ever.

queen