Reasons 1,000,000, 1,000,001 and 1,000,002

why my husband is awesome

1. When the power goes out he lends a helping hand to my friend while I’m out of town.

2. He can stand a weekend with my family (even when I’m not around)

3. He booked us at the Ritz for our weekend in Toronto

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Guyana

Being here in the South American country Guyana for the first time, marks the 25th country I’ve been in! My first international trip (to Mexico) happened when I was 16. So in the past 15 years, I’ve been to 1.6 new countries per year- not bad. But truth be told, the majority has occurred in the past 3 years where I’ve traveled to a total of 17 or 18.

Anyway, population wise, Guyana is tiny– less than 1 million, if you can believe it. In fact, most Guyanese actually live abroad. Guyana is bordered by Brazil and Venezuela and enjoys a tropical climate with plenty of exotic flowers and absolutely amazing birds. It’s known as a birders paradise. Culturally, Guyana is home to native American populations (Amerindians),   African populations, and sub-continent Indians. As a former British colony, Guyana shares more in common with its Caribbean neighbors than its South American ones. The food reflects this cultural diversity and so roti and channa are a staples along with “cook-up” sticky rice with black eyed peas and chicken.

Speaking of food, is it me or do all ex-British colonies suffer bad food? Despite all the fresh fruits and veggies around, none of the restaurants serve them. In the market, I see avacado, papaya, pineapple, cherries, mangos, lettuce, tomato, eggplant. I even saw a goya (a really bizarre looking and bitter vegetable that I’ve only ever seen in Okinawa Japan).  It’s as if Guyana is still stuck in a colonial economic pattern whereby all fresh foods are exported and re-imported as processed stuff. Or people eat fresh foods at home and not in restaurants (which is where I have to eat everyday). So, lunches generally consist of huge portions of rice, fried plantains or channa.

Guyana is also a pretty tough place. I am working on a State Department program designed to lower the propensity of young people (mainly) men to get involved in illegal trade (think drug traffic coming from Venezuela and Colombia) and gang violence. If you listen to news about the Guyanese diaspora, you’ll notice that much of it has to do with gangs and illicit trade. I’ve been pretty shielded from this reality since the program I’m working with hasn’t actually started working with such young men- instead we are in the preparation phase.

Last, the work here has been a real eye-opener for me because I’ve been able to compare myself against some of my “competitors” who in this instance were my clients. Without going too much in depth, I learned how fast I work. My client admitted that it was tough to keep up with my pace. Second, I’m good at building trust and rapport. My local counterparts admitted to mistakes and even instances of outright lying! Of course, I am fortunate to have learned these skills from the senior staff at the office.

 

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Wait Watching

No, I’m not talking about a diet program.

So the other night Lewis and I were cooking dinner together- burritos. He had finished chopping a pineapple for a fruit salad. So he turned on the grill and just waited for it to heat up. Since I was still working away at the counter and saw that he was just standing there, I decided to ask that he help me finish my tasks. He told me he was multi-tasking. I must have had a confused look on my face because he went on to explain- I’m waiting [for the grill to heat] and watching you.

I gently reminded him that “multi-tasking” implied multiple tasks and that I didn’t think waiting or watching qualified as a task in this case.

So now, I’m beginning to understand how foreign multi-tasking is to men.

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Weekend Warriors

Last weekend, we had one of those jam-packed weekends that we used to have. It was alot of fun, but I was basically recovering from my weekend during most of my working week. Ahh to be young and carefree again.

It started Friday evening when we rented $3,000 Trek Madone road bikes. We both ride hybrids, and have been wondering how different it would be to ride a road bike. Well, the result was something like upgrading from a Ford Focus to a Ferrari. Anyway, with the bikes at home, we proceeded on to dinner with a friend.

We got home around midnight and then woke up at 6am on Saturday for a 40 mile round trip to Mt Vernon. The weather was perfect, and the bikes were amazing. I typically ride 10 miles an hour, and we got up to 25 miles, but probably kept a steady pace around 15. Like a sports car, the ride is not as smooth. So, during parts of the ride, the speed combined with relatively less capacity to absorb shocks  left my hands numb! For me, it was also cool to change postures from riding relatively upright to having my thighs parallel with the ground and really being able to keep a steady pace going uphills. Plus it was fun to reach my hands forward to get a lower grip on the handle bars. It was crazy to compare how this 40 mile ride felt compared to the 40 miles we rode on our anniversary. This ride was alot easier and faster, and when we returned home, we felt pretty good.  I basically felt like a bad ass on that bike! Since I rode my bike Mon-Fri, I rode 80 miles during the week. I felt proud of myself.Bottom line is that the Madone is an awesome bike, but probably too much bike for me. I don’t need to be riding the “Ferrari” of bikes on the packed VA trails.

Anyway, we got home from the ride, returned the bikes, showered, and met Lewis’ family in Maryland for lunch.

After, lunch we went home and took a nap! Of course I was dead tired but couldn’t really sleep and thumbed through a couple of magazine. After, our nap we headed out to DC around midnight for a party to welcome my long-lost roommate to DC for her weekend trip. It was great to see Laura after four years- she’s been living in Kenya and Mozambique. We wrapped up the weekend on Sunday with an all day bbq where we grilled, played frisbee, and just caught up with friends for most of the day.

 

 

 

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Anniversary Post

We celebrated our first year anniversary about a month ago, and two countries later, I’m  getting around to posting! We marked the milestone with a 40 mile bike-ride  to the Pink House B&B in Waterford, VA. Lewis has done 60 mile rides in the past, but I don’t think he’s ever done one carrying overnight gear.  So this ride marked our first anniversary, was our first long ride together, and it was our first time “touring.” The planning and execution was a peek into our relationship because it was me who inspired the idea, but Lewis who put the leg-work into investigating B&Bs on the bike path, checking the weather radar every hour the day before our ride, and making sure our bikes were in working order.

The ride out to the Pink House was great with clear and comfortable weather. Though once we arrived, Lewis admitted that he was glad I managed the ride thinking that I would get grumpy and angry during the 4+ hours of riding. The ride back was another story. It was cold and rainy. So when we stopped for lunch at a coffee shop, I sneaked into the bathroom, took off my two layers of socks and ran my frozen feet under hot water. After lunch we rode a couple of miles and hopped on the metro- too tired and cold to make the last 7 miles home. I know Lewis really wanted to get those last 7 miles in because they would mean that over the weekend we rode 100 miles, but I think he felt sorry for his poor frozen wife.

Anyway, the Pink House is a really neat 200 year old home in the country-side that has been renovated by two former DC restaurateurs.

In addition to taking the ride, Lewis brought me a beautiful strand of pearls from Thailand. I gave him bike gear (not the most romantic, but it worked well for the ride).

In honor of our first anniversary, here are some pictures of our wedding and anniversary celebrations.

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Lessons from Bangladesh- Part 1

I’m currently working for Brac, one of the world’s largest NGOs and one of the only  international NGOs , that I know of, that started in the developing world. In addition to the typical training services that many NGOs offer, Brac also runs a number of other entities–they have an internet provider, agriculture research center, numerous training centers, a hotel, and large handicraft store. Anyway, Brac hired us to develop 13 hours of training designed to help poor urban-slum dwelling kids find decent work. Brac provides technical skills training (like tailoring, motorbike repair etc) and we provide soft skills such as “qualities employers look for,” how to seek support and how to plan.

Being here in Bangladesh has been an experience in self-awareness.  I’ve realized that it’s rare that I have the opportunity to see the impact of my work, which takes time to take root. Before coming to Bangladesh, I didn’t realize how much, deep down, I needed to know, that my work was meaningful to someone other than me. I’ve felt like the coach of a championship team, but who never gets to watch a game. So while others might tell me about the team, I would never get to see the underdog player rise to the occasion or the captain taking the trophy. I didn’t realize how deeply demoralizing that was to me.

I started the week by going to the field and training a group of shy 15 year-olds. After meeting on four days, they had opened up and were comfortable with me and my local counterparts. Towards the end of the training, a girl offered me a little handicraft. She said that she had been feeling a total lack of opportunity and a lack of support in her life. She felt down, had nowhere to turn, and couldn’t think of anything to do. She said that she made the handicraft because our training had inspired her, and she had a different outlook. I know it was only one person, but to me, it was like finally being able to watch my team win.

Part of my work here was also to build the capacity of Brac trainers. It’s important to keep in mind that Brac does tons of training, and many of their trainers have over 10 years of experience. Yet, the trainers rely more on a “chalk and talk” approach that is mainly about providing tons of information. Therefore, they make little use of skills such as active listening, using questions, or facilitating practical activities. Moreover, they spend little time thinking about the “why” behind certain training techniques. In this way, despite 10 years of training experience, they have room for improvement. I worked with these trainers, and after 7 days it was amazing to see the growth in their capacity.

Rather than just giving training, I had them design some of it. I forced them to answer questions like, “What is the risk of saying/ not saying XYZ?” “What can’t you make something interactive in 10 minutes?” By the end of the week, they could push back against management- “look, if you want 30 people in a training the risk is that there is not enough participation and if there is not enough participation the risk is people don’t learn- you decide.” In Bangladesh, where a strict hierarchy is observed, that kind of push-back from lower level staff is not common. As I closed training on the final days, I could tell one of the trainers had tears in her eyes. But I knew she would hold them back.

These past 2 weeks have been an incredibly rewarding experience– one I realize that I needed.

 

 

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Breakfast with a $1,000,000- aire, Dinner on less than $1

Blog from Liberia on January 15, 2012

This week is the second presidential inauguration in post-civil war Liberia. It’s a joyous occasion as Liberians celebrate a democratically elected president who is also a recent Nobel laureate.  The lawns of ministry buildings are set with chairs and look like a university campus on graduation day. Red, white and blue ribbons, draped over crumbling government buildings, give Monrovia- a small, dirty, barely functioning city a festive and happy feel. (Although, I doubt many of the foreign dignitaries invited here would notice). The streets are filled with lights and hotels in the city are booked with parties accompanying the 7 heads of state, US Secretary of State, and other important diplomats and business people who have come to Monrovia as special guests of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

Just last week, I arrived, for the third time, to the tiny dusty Roberts Field International Airport, which sits 45 minutes from the city along a newly constructed highway. It’s the same airport that all of us- from top level diplomats and millionaires down to grassroots aid workers arrive on.  Since the 14-year civil war ended in 2004, I’ve heard that there have been major changes for the better at the airport. Yet, for me, arriving in Liberia still feels like a mad rush. Since my flight was delayed, two flights arrived at the same time, absolutely overwhelming the airport. The four immigration officers sitting behind their desks quickly stamped passports and asked to see Visas, which are scanned, sent over email, and then printed. I didn’t actually have a valid visa, but somehow had the name of an immigration official who took me into a back room. After waiting for 5 minutes with other desperate looking foreigners trying to gain entry into Liberia, I was released to the madness of baggage claim. The carousel delivering huge bags- I’ve seen people bring in paper towels and toilet paper move very quickly. Usually there are so many bags on the carousel that they pile up until they spill over onto people waiting to grab their bags. No one bothers to move unclaimed bags so that people standing near the carousel are literally trapped among piling suitcases.  I saw my suitcase and made a mad dash. As I grabbed my bag, it knocked into a lady who couldn’t move so she was almost completely knocked down.

It was now out to Bong County where I work with people who survive on $1 to $2 a day. I’ve been working with a youth group and we are organizing a soccer game as a hands-on way for the kids to learn basic business skills- they have to sell refreshments, invite people, and market the event much like the functions a business carries out. I provide key materials like soft drinks to sell and a soccer ball. They provide labor and can keep any proceeds they earn. After a week strengthening their group and running really simple lessons, I headed back to Monrovia.

On a Sunday morning, I decided to have breakfast at the Mabma Point hotel- one of the more sought after places to stay. It was booked, of course, with VIPs to attend the inauguration. At breakfast there were no empty tables, so I looked around and noticed a strong looking older guy (probably 70+ years old) eating cucumbers, olives and an open faced sandwich. I thought it was an interesting choice for breakfast, so I asked if I could join. As it turns out, this man is the oldest living diplomat to Liberia who happens to be Greek. In my usual, perhaps naïve style, I began asking this guy questions: What does it mean to be the oldest diplomat to Liberia? What is the connection between Liberia and Greece? I learned that the connection was through shipping- Greece a small country of 10 million people owns and operates the largest fleet of sea-going vessels in the world. Liberia, a war-torn country of 3.5 million people maintains the world’s first or second largest registry of sea-going ships. I didn’t quite understand all of the technical details of the shipping industry, but I got the point that Liberia and Greece were related through the ownership and operation of commercial sea vessels.

I learned that this man started his career in the Greek Navy and could remember being trained by Americans during Greece’s own civil conflict in the 1940s and 1950s. He then moved into the shipping business and got involved in diplomacy (I don’t know the exact order) and worked until he became a millionaire and “oldest living diplomat to Liberia,” a station which means he has known all the presidents- Tubman, Doe, Taylor and now Sirleaf.

At first, I felt really uncomfortable sharing a table with this man- because I felt out-classed, and I thought I shared nothing in common. What could I say about Liberian politics, shipping, or being a millionaire that would be interesting conversation? But, wow, how amazing would it be to get to pick this guy’s brain? Soon we were joined by a French friend of his.

What I gained from our conversation was an appreciation for their high-level point of view as contrasted from my on the ground view. We started our conversation in a similar way that all of us who travel frequently start- we talk about international routes, airlines and accommodations.  These two guys complained that there were no direct flights to Liberia and that instead they were continuations of legs of flights that originally ended in Conakry, Accra or Abidjan. I think at a higher level, they didn’t know that this was due to Liberia’s poor infrastructure in what it takes to prepare a 747 for international travel- ability to refuel, clean, replace food items, and run a security check. All of these things are done on stops before reaching Monrovia.

Onto the next topic- a five star hotel. These guys thought it would be necessary for a chain like Marriott or Raddison to open a five star hotel.  I got nothing. For the last week I had bathed out of a bucket, used electricity for 4 hours a day, eaten king rats, and not seen myself in a mirror (thank god).  With dirt under my nails, a wicked tan, and backpackers luggage, WTF do I know about 5 star hotels? So to me, such a luxury was an un-needed waste of money. But to these guys it was the ability to host business and government people, which bring important investment to a country.

We then started a topic- USA bashing, a topic that has always humbled me from my very first travels some 15 years ago! Doe, an uneducated rebel nothing started Liberia’s protracted civil war posited my rich Greek dining companion. How could a no-name do that with no backing? Following Doe, Charles Taylor was in a Boston prison before he began his hostile takeover of Liberia. How could he escape an American prison? Kissinger, on his visit to Liberia stayed only 2 hours at the airport. With powerful American diplomats who have no idea who or what they are backing, it was no wonder American foreign policy has left so many places with despot leaders. The guy followed with rich details of these leaders wearing 20K watches in front of starving citizens. According to him, Liberia in the 1980s was a “paradise.”

Now this is where we differed. I reminded him that Liberia is a nation of 16 tribal groups that is and was governed by an elite class of re-settled slaves who had come from the US.  Could it be that these elite fattened themselves to such a shameful extent that their paisanos felt unjustly removed from the wealth gained on their backs? Though never elected, Doe was among those poor. To this day Liberia continues to be a country of such dis-unity, which, according to the President, is one of the main hindrances to Liberia’s prosperity.  At the end of the day, both of us were right. Liberia’s long civil war was likely a result of unequal discontent between the poor and small elite as well as mis-fire from the cavalier “don’t-know, don’t care” attitude of diplomats like Kissinger.

We then had an interesting discussion about the Chinese versus the American (which let me also say is the European) style of foreign aid. If Americans want to build a bridge they spend millions of dollars flying people around on expensive flights, staying in hotels and performing studies. At the end of the day it takes longer to build the bridge and Americans have benefitted greatly. The Chinese, on the other hand, bring in people and just build. In less than 1/3 the time, the bridge is built. Why do Americans ride around in fancy cars and waste time? I didn’t totally disagree. I think the aid system is filled with mismanagement and waste. However, since the Chinese have not been in the business of aid for over 60 years as have the Americans, we can’t really say the price of that aid.  Americans, at first demanded, that countries not be communist. Now Americans want to see capitalism, democracies and the up-holding of civil rights. Who knows what the Chinese will demand in return? Will they demand the leasing of resource-rich land, which they mine with their own workers thereby taking minerals and leaving a huge gap in local human capacity? While Americans use many locally procured things, the Chinese bring their own. How does this affect the economy? Are the Chinese willing to update and maintain the infrastructure they build once the resources of a country are depleted? Are the Chinese mining in environmentally conscious ways or will they leave the land barren? (Although look at Chevron / Texaco in Ecuador).  I didn’t talk about this, since I largely agreed with his point that American foreign aid needs to be more efficient.

Though I did point out that the UN (not the military)- World Food Program, Development Program etc had private jets, cars etc. In fact, the UN gives their employees far better benefits, travel accommodations, and salary than American NGOs or their private sector counterparts. The European Commission is the same and in fact the bureaucracies of these 2 enormous organizations means that delivering aid takes even longer. So in effect, the European governments are as guilty of the Americans for a cumbersome, and sometimes misguided aid system.

Our final topic, was the age-old topic of trickle down. I agreed with my counterparts that private sector engagement to hire people was much needed. However, I re-joined, who are they going to hire? I gave them a reality check about what it means (bribing) to graduate from one of the two universities here in Liberia. I explained the concept of “poaching” which means that a company is not invested in training people knowing that there is such a dearth for skilled labor that another company will just hire that person. As a result, people are trained to do a simple task without ever taking on greater responsibilities because a driver who might be able to manage other drivers would be quickly absorbed. Is it any wonder the Lebanese companies who control much on the commerce in Liberia never have Liberian managers? I’ve never seen a Liberian manage money at a Lebanese controlled business like a grocery store, restaurant or hotel. So to me, the private sector is somewhat stuck until people are educated and not as social scientists (as they are now) but as engineers, doctors, nurses, teachers, and managers.

After an exciting breakfast, I’m off to the field- feeling nervous about the success of my work there.

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