Thursday, December 18, 2014

From Snowstorms to Military Coup, 2014 was quite a year

As per usual, 2014 has been a year filled with travel and adventure. I am a consultant specializing in gender-based violence in humanitarian crises currently and based in Thailand but on a short term visa so I have to come and go from my apartment in Bangkok every 30 days. Normally, that corresponds with travel for work but sometimes I have to make a “visa run” – which is usually quite nice as Thailand has inexpensive flights, lots of great neighbors, and there are interesting places to go! But the travel is exhausting. If my 25 year old self who dreamed of traveling the world could hear me now, she would probably faint-  what do you MEAN that you are tired of traveling?

Here’s a little snapshot of my travels in 2014:
20 trips * 193 days * 131,541 miles * 42 cities *16 countries

I have one more trip left for the new year – I’m off to Japan for my visa run and I will spend a couple of days in a lovely looking zen Buddhism retreat to try to gain strength for next year. I hope it will be restorative!

So last year, I started out the New Year in the USA with my sister, Alyson. We took a road trip to Florida but sadly that coincided with the polar vortex so no beach for us. That was fine with me since I live in the tropics but Alyson was a bit sad. She was also very tolerant as I took over the social media and liveblogged, tweeted, and instagrammed our road trip. Although it was cold, we stopped by Amelia Island and Savannah as well as meeting Winter the dolphin and seeing some manatees at a power plant.

In February, I went to Bali, Indonesia for an extended trip trying to sit down and really start writing (something that I’ve been wanting to do ever since I was a little girl and wrote my first story about the Princess Sarah and her nemesis, the man in the pickle suit). I found out that writer’s block is a more powerful nemesis than the man in the pickle suit[1]. Ubud is so lovely and beautiful! I consulted an astro-cartographer, as one does while in Bali, to find out where in the world I should move to find love… sadly the answer was Antarctica. Meh. My friend Kaya, the mathmetician, has disputed that analysis and believes my love line is actually the line that runs through Addis –Kiev- Beirut. Maybe in 2015!

I made it back to Washington DC in March to see my dear friend Diana Prieto marry and I danced so enthusiastically at her wedding that I managed to rip out my hem of my dress with my high heel during a polka. I also managed to get trapped on a Qatar Airline flight in a snowstorm sitting at the gate in Dulles for 12 hours. That was fairly miserable and was compounded by flying directly from DC to Rakhine state (via Doha and Yangon) which is a place on the Burma-Bangladesh border that is caught up in discrimination and displacement of Muslim Rohingya by chauvinist Buddhists lead by some extremely radical monks.  I ended up caught up in the riots against aid workers in Rakhine State. It was all very tense but in the end, I was fine and was evacuated back to Yangon where I joined a bunch of other aid workers in a sparkling wine filled brunch-debrief-argument that helped us all decompress. From a polka party to a snowstorm to attacks by Buddhist monks! What a trip!

I took a little break by going to one of the most beautiful beaches in Thailand – Koh Phangan – and managed to avoid the infamous Full Moon party. I’m really getting old now, I guess. I preferred hanging out under the actual full moon and taking a swim alone rather than drinking buckets of beer and watching people vomit in the sea. YOUTHS!

I then returned to Myanmar where I worked up on the border with China in a fascinating place called Kachin State where I got to hang out with my friend Marise from MSF, ride bicycles around the town, get a massage by a blind man, and visit the “confluence” of the N’mai and Mali rivers where the Irrawaddy river is born. It’s a very important place for the Kachin people – a place that may soon disappear due to the construction of the 7 dam Irrawaddy project. Local people have been forcibly relocated from around the area and large scale mechanized gold mining and logging projects have destroyed large areas as well as polluting the Irrawaddy river. At one point, I was told, the river was so pristine that it was crystal clear. Not so much anymore but it was a nice day out to a remote spot- luckily we were not kidnapped like the three government workers who also went to the confluence that day for a picnic.

I returned back to Thailand just in time to experience martial law and the Military coup in May!  The Thai military coup was so “Thai” and so not as dramatic as the news made it out to be. I was getting a pedicure in the afternoon and preparing to go meet someone to interview them for my consultancy when we entered into a fashionable coffee shop/chocolate shop. We ordered and the waiter seemed very agitated and told us we would have to eat fast and then said MARTIAL LAW MARTIAL LAW! We broke out our smart phones, found out that martial law had been declared and there was a 10pm curfew so we finished our lattes and headed home. The Sky Train was completely crowded and people were swarming the ubiquitous 7-11s to just to stock up on alcohol. My friend Jordan came up to hang out that night and told me he had been headbutted by a desperate expat man in the 7-11 trying to get a case of beer. So my neighbors Rebecca, Jordan and I sat around listening to the cheery nationalistic Siamese martial music being broadcast on every single tv station and played Cards Against Humanity while sipping gin and tonics. What a very expat experience. My first coup (well actualy there was an attempted coup in Darfur when I was there in 2004 but they didn’t succeed and the only way we knew it had happened is they took all the sat phones and mobile phones off line).  

Life under the military regime has not been very different. We all panicked when they threatened to tighten immigration and we became very sad when they closed up all the VW Bus/bars that lined Soi 11 near my house at night. Apparently you can’t eat a sandwich in public or read George Orwell as it’s a protest now and in very Thai style, the three finger salute from the Hunger Games is now used in protest. But other than that – the non-stop unbridled capitalism, hedonism, and eating continues apace.

After I finished my work in Myanmar, I managed to win an 8 month contract with the UN that was home-based so I hoped it would help me stay home a bit more. Wrong! I was immediately brought to NYC for a meeting, which was nice as New York in May is wonderful! I also flew from NYC via Abu Dhabi to London for a big summit to end sexual violence in conflict in London where I got to finally meet Angelina Jolie! The best part of the whole conference was that I was quoted in US Weekly about Brad Pitt! From there I flew to Qatar where I waited for a visa for my next crazy adventure – teaching about gender and disasters to the Saudi Red Crescent! 

Well, now you can guess where my Xmas photo was taken. Luckily, my college roommate, Ann-Michelle lives in Doha and I got to hang out with her and her fantastic husband and kids for 10 days and she loaned me an abaya – the mandatory long black coat that all women in Saudi Arabia wear with a headscarf. What you can’t really tell in the photo is how beautifully it is embroidered with black sequins and thread. Every single woman wears a very different abaya and I found myself checking them out to see their fashion sense. Saudi Arabia was a very interesting experience. The people that I met were both incredibly hospitable and sweet to me but I also faced some of the worst sexism I’ve had to experience in my life (which thankfully has not been very much). The highlight of the trip was the flight out of Riyadh back to Doha. It was the last day before Ramadan and all of the domestic workers were all rushing home for holiday. It was like boarding the last flight out of Saigon as hundreds of Filipino, Pakistan, Bangladeshi, Indian, and African workers pushed and shoved their way onto the fully booked Dreamliner in desperation. I got caught up in the hysteria as several waist-high women used me as a battering ram to push us onto the plane. I have never been so happy to land in Doha. It looked like a desert oasis after the run down, dusty Riyadh. I felt like I might have overdone it that night for Ann-Michelle’s birthday as I chowed down on pork, drank champagne, and danced in a minidress until sunrise. That’s what Saudi does to you though…
I returned to Europe for my summer vacation – finally facing the dreaded task of clearing out my storage unit in Amsterdam (which true to form, I procrastinated on until the very last day before I had to fly back) and celebrated a spectacular birthday in Berlin and Poland with my bestie Mike Dumiak before heading to the gorgeous chateau in the Loire Valley with a group of friends for non stop wine tasting (a repeat from 2011)…

I finished up the year by returning to the US in October to visit my cousin Catherine who is ill in Topeka, Kansas and it was nice to spend even a few days with her and Emil in America’s heartland. I returned to NYC to run a workshop and then Alyson and I met up in Toronto, Canada where we visited Niagara Falls – a place both of us have always wanted to see! I was thrilled to be able to ride on the “Horatio Hornblower” and get completely soaking wet by the power of the falls.

The end of the year was a blur of travel to Malaysia, Philippines, Myanmar, and work work work. I made a couple of short trips to the gorgeous Thai beaches of Koh Samet and Railay beach and cooked and consumed some amazing meals. I’ve been privileged to see so much of the world this year – and to have the love of family and friends. 2014 gave us the war in Gaza, the massacres in Pakistan, the ebola epidemic, the crashes of the Malaysia airline flights, the kidnapping of young women by Boko Haram in Nigeria, the sinking of the ferry in Korea, the horrible beheadings by ISIL, and the horrific murders of children in Pakistan. But I hope my silly stories of my adventures around the world can give a little laugh at the end of the year. I still believe in universal human rights, speaking truth to power, fighting for justice and gender equality and the power of a good bottle of red wine and an Ottolenghi cookbook to change the world.

I wish you and your loved ones an adventuresome, peaceful, tasty, and loving 2015!

[1] my father, incidentally