Happy New Year! It's a bit late but I hope you'll accept my greetings! I feel like 2016 had me always a day late on everything. So a short catch up on my whirlwind life:
Last year, I traveled to 24 countries* including 8 new ones (Hong Kong, Serbia, Albania, Bulgaria, Montenegro, Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzagovina, and Greece) bringing my total of countries up to 84! I still have so many places to see though, I'll never get tired of traveling but I am getting tired of moving around so much. I want a home and a place to live that I can settle into and get to know my neighbors, have a garden, and all those other homey things.
On the career front, I started off the job as the Regional Emergency Gender-based Violence Advisor for Asia and the Pacific - a job that seemed like it was something I would like but that I instead felt frustrated in. The internal UN politics are not where I am happy. I like being in the field with women's organizations and teaching humanitarian aid workers about gender and GBV and getting them inspired. I went to London to attend a certificate course on Research Methods about GBV in February and while there was interviewed for what seemed like a dream job.
In April, I took the job as Initiatives Director for Women and Children's Protection at the International Rescue Committee based in Belgrade, Serbia. I was to map what was happening with the Syrian, Afghan, and other migrants/refugees/asylum seekers (whatever you wish to call them) as they moved through Europe and tried to get to Germany, Sweden, and other countries. I moved to Belgrade in April but it was one week after the EU-Turkey deal took place which sealed the borders and dropped the flow of immigrants.
It was a fantastic job - I interviewed refugees and got to know them in Berlin, in Serbia, I traveled all over the Balkans (hence many of those 8 new countries). But unfortunately, the world's attention shifted now that refugees were being moved via smugglers and there weren't the dramatic boat and group shots at the borders on the nightly news. There were still immense protection violations and women and children were at even greater risk from smugglers and others as they attempted to illegally move through the continent but with donors attentions elsewhere, IRC decided to discontinue my position and scale back.
This also coincided with a moment I had been dreading - the death of Simon Le Bon, my adored Siamese cat. He was the loudest cat in the world, a real love bug, and a force of nature. He was 16 years old and while still quite spry and energetic and loud as ever, he had started to have some problems with his kidneys. My constant time away from him was an awful thing but I did the best I could for him. He was a well-traveled and deeply loved cat. I still can hear his meow when I come back to my apartment every day. I was in Serbia when he died and I dreaded returning back to Thailand to no job, an empty apartment, and the heat and humidity and assorted big city life.
Thankfully, after a good holiday in Budapest with my bestie Alec I felt a bit better and then a series of cat sitting gigs opened up. I am calling it Autumn 2016: Cat Sitting for the Soul. I met four new cats in Sarajevo, Bosnia where i stayed for August and September. Naila and Garu and Dirty Frank and the late loved Bobbie Magee (RIP). They kept me warm, purred over my broken heart, and kept me attentive to the needs of their littler boxes and food bowls. I even received some gifts of dead birds and grasshoppers. And a few fur balls. I also looked after the elegant Labneh in Paris for a while and hung out with the old dude, Primo in Berlin.
After healing up a bit, I took off traveling around Europe looking for that elusive place that I'd like to call home. I visited Athens, Greece which I loved because of its connection with my father. But there were a few too many aid workers and it stressed me out thinking I was the "old woman' being irritated with young new faces working in humanitarian aid. I went to Berlin, home of my good friend Mike Dumiak (from Drinking Big 40s in the Graveyard in Sumter, SC fame) and it seems like a great fit. I also went to Lisbon, Portugal with my friends the famous author (!!) and his handsome DJ husband, Saleem Haddad and Adam Barr. So glamorous - I hope the paparazzi spells my name right and doesn't get wind of us stuck in an elevator for 3 hours! And Paris - gorgeous Paris - home of extremely expensive apartments and my glamorous friends (as well as the elegant aforementioned Labneh). I'm still figuring it out. Alyson joined me in the autumn for a trip we've been planning for years which probably makes no sense to anyone but us: Auschwitz and Neuschwanstein. we are both mad about history, she studied German and European history and we love castles. We had a book on our living room table since childhood of castles of the world and Neuschwanstein was the cover photo and we have been talking about going there forever. We had a great trip and worked in Vienna and Prague as well.
I then went over to Beirut, Lebanon to reconnect with my brilliant friend, Lina who runs the Institute for Women's Studies in the Arab World where I'll be teaching a class in 2017. And in what we thought was going to be an affirmative win of feminism over crass bigotry, we got together with two other gender-based violence activists to watch the US election returns. I have never been more frightened, anxious, and depressed over politics than I have been since November 6. I took to my bed for two days - waking up to realize it wasn't a nightmare and going back to sleep with a sense of dread and anxiety.
Sitting in a country like Lebanon that has suffered so much from internecine conflict and lives in a dangerous neighborhood - dangerous because it also serves as a battle ground for USA's political experiments and happens to have the extremely controversial spiritual hubs for three religions right next door - is humbling. It reminded me to calm down because the Lebanese know how to survive in such places but it also made me realize how high the stakes were in this election. I feel so disheartened and my normal political activism is gone. I feel cynical, scared, and hopeless about the future of our world. The fact that one of the first things that the administration of "he who shall not be named" moved to do was cast their Sauron's eyeball towards gender equality programming is chilling and doesn't bode well for the women of the world who have looked to the USA as someone to assist them in their search for equality.
So I returned to Bangkok for Thanksgiving 2016 with a group of human rights activists and americans. We were sad and subdued this year. And I returned to my apartment and did a little more travel in Asia - visiting Yogyakarta and Borobodur, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Hoi An and Hanoi, Vietnam, Chiang Mai and Hua Hin, Thailand before returning back to Bangkok to begin consulting again.
So despite the many movements and job changes in 2016, I start off 2017 sort of where I started - back in Bangkok, unsure of where to go next, and working as a consultant. I'm also turning 50 this year so it feels like a year that should involve some change. However, as I analyze the findings from my sabbatical, I'm trying to focus on the good things like my cat friends taught me on my sabbatical. Find a sunbeam and lie in it to rejuvenate yourself, nap whenever possible as we all need more sleep, when in doubt - pause and take a bath, and show your love for those that feed you and make sure that you get the type of food you want. If they don't, then maybe you should pee in their fireplace.
So - what is next? I don't know! Stay tuned! Happy 2017,
Sarah (available for cat sitting gigs globally)