Saturday, July 24, 2010

A Photowalk through Thessaloniki

A day begins with the sunrise sky reflected in a coffee cup.

Reflections continue: A Byzantine Rotunda in a motorcycle mirror  
From the trendy to the traditional: Music, frappe and cigarettes
And from the contemporary to the age-old: Afternoon light streaming through the Hagia Sophia 

Thessaloniki's other religion: Love
"Socialism for the rich, capitalism for the rest": Belief systems in times of crisis 
Unaffected by the crisis: Bird chasing
Unaffected by time: Payphones 
Life through rose-tinted (glass) lenses  
Greece: An endless sunset...
... and Greece: endless idealism, romanticism - and love.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

"We Greeks... we love."

Current location: Thessaloniki, Greece - home?
Currently listening: Siko xorepse sirtaki ("Greek country", for all intents and purposes, as the hyperlink will demonstrate)
Currently eating: Feta, in all its forms
Currently missing: Everywhere and everyone
At a Greek tavern you expect the staples: Tzatziki, melitzanosalata, souvlaki, and some sweet red wine served in a jug right out of the barrel. With it, you get free dessert and your faith in humanity reinforced.

I had not sat in these chairs in seven years and the same musicians are performing on the bouzouki and guitar. Greece virtually defies evolution - the world may implode, but Greece stays the same. Its resistance of change and unwillingness to defy the motifs by which it raised generations upon generations of 'patriots' accounts both for its current financial situation and the love with which its citizens, whether within or far away from its borders, will speak of it.

When in Greece, do as the Greeks do. Greek cigarettes come with the same "your child will come out with 7 heads and 13 arms if you continue smoking warnings" as American cigarettes do, but Greeks defy warnings with as much ease and cavalier philosophizing about how one is "only young once" as Guatemalans and Colombians do. And that is how strangers find themselves among strangers, sharing a cigarette along with their thoughts on heartbreak, the financial crisis, marriage, professional ambition and a Mediterranean diet.

A new friend told my American visitor: "Listen, the thing about us Greeks is that we love. We love inconveniently, we love women who will kick our butts. We just love. We Greeks... we love."

'We Greeks', we love generalizations that transform individual shortcomings, traits and talents into national characteristics. And yet, in the candidness of this evening, the community built over shared food and wine, the cigarette smoke and bouzouki drift, and the romantic idealism, I saw faces of Colombia, India, and everywhere in between - and my love of ommunity, the kindness of strangers and once again, faith in humanity, reinforced. Maybe I am beginning to see Greece as a home, or maybe Greece is whisking me to all the other homes I have loved since I left her. Either way, there is something magical about Greece's ability to transport one back to the past or to a treasured memory or to a place of intimacy and comfort and, indeed, home-ness and for that, I will always treasure it. Thank you, bouzouki and feta, for reminding me.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Death and all his friends: Are we reckless?

We work in the dark - we do what we can - we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. - Henry James, as quoted in Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi
"It will not happen to me."

There is no room for this cavalier arrogance in conflict zones. You take your preventative medicine, you treat your every cut and scratch, you try to eat responsibly, you lock your door at night. You wake up one morning, you hear about the aid worker who got raped when she hailed a motorcycle taxi alone late at night, you do your work with a heavy heart. You hear about the compound security guard who was responsible for the mass robberies. You hear about the uptick in violence, the insurgents, the kidnappings, the government intelligence unit following aid workers.

One day, you may wake up and hear about the loss of someone you knew. A fellow aid worker, or a traveler who slept on your couch, or your workshop participants who got caught in a mudslide. For every person you may have known, another sixty or eighty or two hundred died with him or her. And time stops for a minute and you think: I used to hang out there. I walk that road every day. I saw him just yesterday. I left the restaurant with her the night she got attacked. It could have been me.

There is no room for being cavalier in conflict zones.

Invisible Children, an organization working with child soldiers in Uganda, is mourning the loss of Nate Henn, following a terrorist attack during a World Cup viewing in Kampala. Terrorism adds to the injustice of loss; unlike a car accident, which can also cause a sudden death, terrorism intends to take the lives of innocents. Those innocents are often aid workers who are, by definition, people who have been drawn to the scarred parts of the world in order to serve and give a bit of themselves to those in need.

Over eighty-five have been injured in the Uganda attacks, over seventy have been killed. When people who know what I do for a living ask me how I can live in such dangerous places, I usually say that "this is where the need is. If they were not in need of development, if there were no conflict to mediate, there would be no need for me and my programming to be there." And when the next question is "how do you do it?", the only answer is: you love. You love what you do. It gets you out of bed in the morning. It helps you fall asleep feeling fulfilled at night. When you sleep, that is.

Sleep has been a problem. First, you lose sleep because you stay up at night talking to like-minded souls. Then you lose sleep because you hear gunfire in the distance. Then you lose sleep because you are worried about the security guard tiptoeing outside your window. Then you lose sleep because of an armed robbery in the building or a woman screaming outside the love motel across the street. Then you lose sleep because you remember all this. And then you are in your childhood home in Greece and you lose sleep because it is too quiet. The crickets are too loud and every time the fridge makes ice cubes, you pop out of bed ready to confront the phantom insurgent who never was.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a real challenge soldiers confront worldwide. A version of it strikes all those who have spent part of their lives in conflict zones, working, learning, loving. Even when the ghosts of conflict zone living manifest themselves non-clinically, they can still rob us of our sleep, our sense of security, or, in the worst of cases, of our loved ones. Around how many exploding volcanoes, rolling mudslides, guerrilla attacks, violent muggings or other security threats need one be before she begins to wonder if she is not just doing what she loves, but is being reckless? And how does one resolve in her head the quandary of how what she loves is so inherently dangerous?

We take precautions. We buy evacuation insurance and do not let our phones run out of credit, lest we need to place an emergency call. We swallow malaria preventative pills, even if we have gotten malaria while taking them in the past. We wash our hands and cover our noses with face masks, hoping that can prevent our contracting disease while shoveling mud out of destroyed homes. We hope that somehow that is 'enough'. There is nothing we can do to shelter ourselves from terrorism. We keep the deceased in our hearts and we honor their lives of service. And we hope that one day, we will not put our own loved ones through the anguish of it all -- those same loved ones who stayed with us on Gchat as we were trying to establish if someone did break into the apartment or held our hand through malarial hallucinations and stomach worms. We hope that we can keep doing what we love without falling prey to its deadly drawbacks.

Today, I do not know if that is enough.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Round Goddess: Life in 90-minute intervals

"No getting away from oneself:"  That is both the fear and the hope of people who move. If you're pulling up stakes in order to remake your life and your character, what if you go to all that trouble and end up no more changed [...]? On the other hand, what if your identity is stuck with such firm adhesive to your old home that you leave little bits behind, and your new self is tattered and diminished?  - At Large and at Small, Ann Fadiman

Growing up in Greece means growing up with a strange conception for how many gods is too many gods. In addition to learning about the Zeuses and Jesuses of the world, childhood in my family involved the worship another deity. The 'round goddess', as the Greek expression would have it, refers to the wonderment of the soccer ball, the sanctity of which has remained relevant and poignant long after agnosticism and multiculturalism and religious wars and "citizenship of the world" diluted most other affiliations to the common gods. With the World Cup a day away from its conclusion, there is a sense of national helplessness (a common theme in Greece at the moment, but I digress) - a sense that now parents have to get back to parenting, children will return to playing outdoors and friends will have to talk over their frappe coffee, instead of enjoying it with a flat-screen TV doing the entertaining. In that vein, some life changes need to happen post World Cup: 

1. I can stop hearing vuvuzelas in my sleep.
2. I need to reconcile myself with the fact that, given that I am not a beautiful Spanish sports journalist or a Brazilian model, I will not become Mrs. Iker Casillas or Mrs. Diego Milito.
3. There can now be women on television again, instead of flotillas of 22 men beautifully choreographing on grass with a ball. I can also now stop getting angry at every magazine article that begins with "20 things you can do while your man dates the World Cup." 
4. Life need no longer be conducted in 45' intervals. "Are you hungry? Want to make some lunch?" really deserves a better response than "At halftime" or "There is a 2-for-1 World Cup pizza special." Bathroom breaks, conference calls, and a run to the grocery store are all timed to the soccer broadcast - which, for someone who has watched the games of this World Cup in 4 different countries can cause a warped conception of time.

And, almost dreadfully, 5. I can begin to look forward to what life has in store for me, I can begin to think about the next step. Ever since I set foot back in Greece, my presumed 'home,' I have been overcome by a sense of idleness. The lack of a clear purpose, the lack of powerful human connections, the lack of lessons and challenges embedded in field work means I have felt idle, sleepy-hearted and a bit lost. I am craving a return to the field, a return to the road, a return to the feeling of being alive. I resent the idea that the growth and learning that happens 'on the road' is tied to the transience of travel and the impermanence of constant change and constantly being on the move. 

And so when the celebrations have died down and life is no longer marked by referees' calls, offsides and 90-minute intervals, I will need to find my footing at home and begin to think about life after Egypt, Colombia, Guatemala and everywhere in between. 

In the meantime, I have vowed to continue writing about it. Έτσι μιλώ για σένα και για μένα, the title of this blog, means "And so I speak of you and of me" in my native Greek, and is also the title of my favorite poem in Odysseas Elytis' The Monogram. A fellowship journey through conflict zones and the poem inspired the beginning of this blog, but it is people, their stories and their thoughts that have kept it alive through 4 continents. As I figure out the next step, Έτσι μιλώ για σένα και για μένα will continue to travel with me.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

A Year in Lists and Numbers

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and 
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The could-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall disolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
-The Tempest, William Shakespeare
On the Road
Plane rides: 43
Train rides: 11
Long-distance bus journeys: 19
Car journeys (excluding pick-up trucks, tow trucks and other unlikely vehicles): 11
Helicopter rides: 1
Overland border crossings: 7

At work
Pages of reports written or curricula developed: 849
Number of affiliate organizations worldwide: 13 (including 4 U.N. bodies)
Number of program beneficiaries worldwide: exact figure TBD, estimate is over 4,000

(Some) Firsts
First time working with ex-combatants
First winter in a hot climate
First time participating in a disaster relief mission
First motorcycle ride solo
First dive near coral reefs
First time I saw a moon rainbow
First monsoon season (and first Tropical Storm and first 'dry season' and 'wet season')
First time I saw a baby being born (and helped her into the world)
First time I saw a woman being beaten in public
First viewing of a censored version of a film
First time someone attempted to earnestly buy me in exchange for camels
First climb up active volcano
First participation in mass grave exhumations
First time I met a pirate
First hike through a cloud forest
First time without my own computer for an extended period of time
First project involving outreach to indigenous populations
First time working with children (and first time getting along with children)
First time being mugged
First time as a redhead
First time correctly identifying a constellation
First time lying in bed and doing absolutely nothing for a whole day
First time sleeping in the desert
First time delivering programming in a language other than English

(Some) Superlatives

Longest transportation experience: 30 hours on a train from Luxor to Cairo. Ride 2 kms, stop by the Nile for 4 hours, ride another 7 kms, stop inexplicably for another 7 hours. Watch the cows literally come home. Receive no information, compensation, or apology, only to find out the delay was because the train in front of us had hit a cow, killing 18 passengers and injuring over 50. For my friend Reid, the news was not that we spent 30 hours on a journey that should have taken 12, or that we had a near-brush with death, or even that a cow could cause so much trouble, but that "you guys, Roxanne did not pee for 30 hours!"
Strangest transportation experience: Getting kicked off a bus and being dumped on the side of the road in the Sinai desert. Tied with having a rental car break down on what I later found out was the Damascus-Baghdad highway, resulting in hitch-hiking ona tow-truck and riding inside the actual car that was being  towed through the Syrian desert because a Western woman's presumed lack of virginity was enough to disqualify her from a seat outside the tow area.
Number of doctor or hospital visits: 9 (in 7 different different countries.)
Frequency of attempts to self-diagnose malaria/dengue/other tropical disease via the internet: Weekly.
Conversations exceeding 10 minutes on the topic of one's poop, the contents of one's stomach or the state of the larvae popping out of one's thigh: Unacceptably many.
Strangest medical experience: The time a doctor/pastor in Gulu, Uganda attempted to cure my conjunctivitis by saying a prayer two centimeters away from my eye, blessing it with his hand and sending me on my way. 
Most unlikely place to discover a hint of Greece: Book fair in plaza de Armas in Havana, Cuba. Sold a used copy of "My life with Che", written by one of his alleged Greek lovers. Two hours later, I had a Cuban band serenade me in Greek as I watched the Champions' League in a pub in Havana, but that was a story for another time.
Strangest sight at an international border: A Dunkin' Donuts at the Lebanese-Syrian border Green Zone. Because, apparently, more than "America runs on Dunkin'"?
Most played song: Good Woman, Cat Power (closely followed by Home, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Blood Bank, Bon Iver, El Doctorado, Tony Dize)
Most cups of coffee in a day: 6, all before 10 am at the Pereira airport in the coffee district of Colombia. If I could have lugged that coffeemaker home, I would have.
Most mosquito bites at one time: 143 in the Amazon and, yes, I counted. Girardot, Colombia is a close second with 96 and yes, I have counted more than once in my life.
Most consecutive days without a shower: 6.
Most hours spent attempting to gain admission at an international border: 14. Thank you, Syria.
Number of different languages in my areas of work: 11
Number of First Ladies met: 2
Number of roommates: 13
Number of natural disasters or epidemics during my days in the field: 4 (swine flu does not cut it).
Highest altitude accessed: 9,252 ft (2,820 m) in Quito, Ecuador
Lowest point on land accessed Dead Sea, Israel
Number of photos taken: TBD; initial account is over 10,000.
Mediterranean dish most often cooked when asked to show the world the culinary wonders of my country: Bruchetta (on 3 different continents)
Number of times there was dancing on tables: 11
Number of tables cracked or broken as a result of such activity: 1.5
Number of nights that blended into dawn: 27 (in Guatemala: 9)
Number of friends met through Couchsurfing: 46
Most memorable animal spotted: An anaconda in the lake from which we gathered water for our bucket showers in the Colombian Amazon. Tied with a jaguar at the same location and a black mamba near Paicho, Uganda.
Most unconventional holiday experience: This one requires a sublist.
  •  Thanksgiving at a diving site in the Red Sea, spotting my first corral reefs and lionfish, and celebrating 'turkey day' with Indian food and a power outage;
  • Christmas Eve crowded outside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, drinking Palestinian beer, eating shewarma and listening to a Reggaeton performance by a woman who proclaimed "I am African, just like all of you" to the decidedly non-Africans who were subjected to her glory;
  • Christmas Day at a tapas bar with a floating Santa, sangria, chips and salsa in Ramallah, Occupied Palestinian Territories.
And this leaves out why I was climbing a wall ladder above someone's toilet in Tel Aviv on New Year's Eve, how traveler's diarrhea intersects with Greek Easter and the Colombian Amazon, how a new friend took it upon himself to commemorate my Greek origins by cooking lamb on my birthday, and how American Independence Day coincided with the loss of my own independence.

Part II of A Year in Lists and Numbers coming soon. If you have a question about the year, the traveling or the projects, leave it in the comments or send me an email.