Archive for the ‘travel’ Category

I never know where to sit when I get into a car driven by a hired driver.  Do I sit in the front seat? The back? What does it mean when I sit in one place versus another?

And then there are those times when the driver’s side is on the right instead of the left like I’m used to, and I wait stupidly next to the driver’s door until he says ‘Oh, you want to drive, eh?’

I realize I have issues if these are the things I worry about, but the only drivers I’ve ever hired are street taxi drivers, and I’ve always just sat in the back unless the taxi was exceptionally crowded.

When I’m traveling and it comes to a riding in a vehicle with someone who’s hired by an organization and whose full-time job it is to drive, I’m never quite sure what to do. Do I sit in the front seat because I believe we are equals despite our position in the hierarchy? Or is that being ridiculously silly and American? And actually, which seat actually holds more status? The back or the front? And if I sit in the front, do I end up just embarrassing the poor guy with familiarity and friendliness when he’d rather I sit in the back so he can just do his job and go home? Or is it rude to hop in the back? And in the end, does the driver even care?  I  am probably being self-important to think it matters. Visitors come and go.

I Googled “where to sit hired car driver,” to try to find out, and nothing. What’s a girl to do?

And what about when there are more people than just me and the driver? What then?

Sometimes when traveling in different countries where my organization works, people offer me the front seat, but I never totally know what that means. Do they think I expect it because I’m a visitor, or from the US, or working with the regional office, or all of the above? If I don’t take the front seat, am I offending people by not accepting a gesture of respect and welcome?

Other times I end up in the back seat with 2 or 3 other women. I imagine it crosses all of our minds to try at least a little to avoid the cramped middle seat. Or we wonder if we should secretly engineer it so that a female colleague we want to show gratitude or respect to can have a window seat while we suffer with no legroom.

I don’t think I’m the only one that notices, because normally there is some kind of banter about who’s sitting where and whether they are fat or skinny and whether we all fit.

This afternoon was tricky because it was just the driver, a female colleague and me.  She said ‘Oh please, do sit in front!’ I said ‘Oh no, it’s fine, let me just sit here!’  She got in the front and I sat in the back seat, on the right hand side. Since she’d earlier been identified as my sister, because she had just gotten her US Passport, I thought it would be OK to ask her about car etiquette.

Of course, it turns out that there is etiquette. The higher status person should sit in the front, just like in the US, where parents or people being shown respect get the front seat.  (I forgot to ask if it’s common to yell ‘shotgun’ on the way to the car when everyone is of equal status to determine who gets the front seat….)

My colleague told me that in some parts of Cameroon, men always get the front, ‘because women are just getting to a place where they might think about sitting there’. Sometimes though, someone will offer you the front seat as a gesture, in which case you should take it.

She explained that if the owner of a car has a hired driver, the owner normally sits in the spot where I was sitting (right hand side, back seat). ‘This lets everyone know that he is the owner of the car…. If he’s a big man, his bodyguards will then sit in the front seat and to the left of him in the back…. And if you are riding with a group of people, you might ask or wait to be instructed where to sit so as to ensure you are not sitting in the owner’s spot or offending anyone.’

Makes total sense.

In the end, I suppose there will be slight variations to car etiquette, but it’s pretty much the same everywhere, and I should just go with my gut feeling.

But I still don’t know if I’m supposed to get in the front or the back when it’s just the driver and me, and he doesn’t indicate by nodding or opening a door.


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I’m in Bamenda, a beautiful, cloudy and cool, mountainous area of Cameroon, to support some training this week. On the drive out, my colleagues revealed that they’d booked me into ‘a very nice hotel’, whereas they would be staying at the ‘Family Hotel’. I asked why we were staying at different places and it became clear that they’d be staying with relatives and friends or at hostels they didn’t think I could handle to save their per diem. The nice hotel is indeed nice – not fancy, but brand new with clean, quiet rooms, fluffy white comforters, decent pillows, a hot water shower and most importantly – there are no mosquitoes. I would have protested, but my luggage didn’t arrive and I don’t have my mosquito net for at least another couple of nights, so I let it go.

I went down to breakfast this morning and there were a couple of older guys, maybe in their 60s, waiting to be served. We greeted each other with typical pleasantries. They said they were in Bamenda to recruit students for a school they run in the UK. I waited for about 15 minutes for some acknowledgement from hotel staff that there was going to be some kind of breakfast, but nothing. Pretty soon a few obviously wealthy Cameroonians affiliated with the 2 UK guys came in. They were clearly not used to waiting and began berating the kitchen staff to hurry up and get us all some breakfast. I apologized and asked for just some hot water to take to my room to make coffee, as the driver was going to arrive shortly.

Tonight I went down to dinner. I am not a soccer fan but thought I’d watch the Brazil-Chile World Cup match since I didn’t have anything else to do, mobile internet was slow, and there was a TV on in the bar area. I ordered a Guinness and asked if there was any dinner. The hotel is pretty much food made to order based on what’s available in the kitchen since there are very few customers. The cook I had bonded with over the soccer match and my dinner selection last night suggested he stir fry up some eggplant and zucchini with garlic and ginger. Fabulous. I timed my order so that I could eat at half time. Then I realized that I was making him miss the whole first half of the game because he was cooking my meal. And I don’t even care about soccer.

My 2 UK hotel-mates from breakfast arrived back to the hotel just as I started eating, and set up at the bar. Friendly chatting ensued about my meal. The first UK guy said he’d bring his own food and spices next time and cook his native Indian food in the kitchen since hotel staff were so slow. There was a young Cameroonian woman with the second UK guy. He was tickling her in a suggestive way. The finely dressed Cameroonian guy with them said to the first UK guy “Don’t worry, your ‘drink’ will be here in 30 minutes. You know what I mean, your ‘drink’?” How obvious.

Brazil was dominating at 3-0, but I decided to wait around in the bar for the game to be over just to see how old this guy’s ‘drink’ happened to be. I was glad to see that at least she was clearly over 18. Makes me wonder what kind of ‘school’ these guy are involved with. I suppose if you were a poor family in Bamenda and some wealthy looking guy from the UK offered to take your son or daughter to study over in the UK, you’d be cool with it. Or maybe I’m reading into things.

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While writing my last post on amateurs, professionals, innovations and smart aid, I was also thinking about why organizations or institutions offer volunteering, voluntourism and exchange visits as an option for their donors, students, constituents, and why people (including US volunteers and overseas communities or organizations that receive volunteers/visitors) participate in them.

As another mental exercise, I came up with 4 categories that these programs fall into (feel free to differ or add others if I skipped over something, this is in no way scientific research or a desk study, just thoughts based on my experiences and observations):

Relationship building, cross-cultural learning, solidarity

  • Some initiatives are primarily aimed at learning, engaging with the world outside a person’s home country, strengthening cross-cultural relationships, and building links and global movements. These programs tend to stem from a core belief that in order to achieve a better and more peaceful world, we need to reach out and strengthen relationships across cultures and countries; enhance our understanding of one another; better comprehend our global interconnectedness; and build global movements around  particular themes to push forward change. This kind of program is sometimes also heavily funded by governments as part of foreign aid (Peace Corps, development education programs funded by USAID, ‘democracy strengthening’ exchange programs) with a goal of improving relations, transferring skills, and showing that Americans really are nice, helpful, friendly people and that democracy is the best form of government.
  • Those that sign up for these initiatives are often highly engaged with a particular cause (solidarity movement, peace, environment, religious, women, political viewpoint). They may be going overseas to show their solidarity, share knowledge and skills, or connect around issues they are passionate about.  Or they may simply want to travel abroad and have an interest in global issues and a desire to help. Volunteering, voluntourism and exchange programs offer a way travel and/or live abroad in a non-touristy way. These types of programs can be very attractive for youth and people late in their careers or retired.

Career development, field study and gaining experience

  • Some programs are offered by academic institutions, non-profits (or perhaps private companies) whose work is focused on or in the developing world, and who believe their students (or employees) need experience in the developing world in order to do quality work that is well adapted to the cultures and people that they will deal with/serve/sell to in the future.  These are programs that offer career development, internships or study opportunities via NGOs, universities, etc.; language learning; resume building and experience for future careers in a variety of fields; opportunities to live with and learn about or research a particular culture or field; a chance to better understand the poor and design products and services for/with the Bottom of the Pyramid (BoP); insight to build social enterprises, etc.
  • Those looking for these types of experiences are often university students, recent graduates, missionaries, foreign language students, or adventurers looking for a way to live abroad. For many in this group, overseas experience is a key factor that will set them apart; build a skill set; allow them to progress in their chosen field of work; and help them be more effective in the types of processes, services and products that they eventually develop. There is pretty much no way to get this kind of experience outside of volunteering, overseas interning or doing an exchange trip during a semester, a vacation period or a summer.

Cultural belief in community service and charity

  • Another common reason that organizations offer these opportunities is belief that volunteering is good, charity is an important value, we should appreciate what we have and give back. In the past 10 years or so, mandatory volunteering and community service is growing in US schools as a way to build certain habits and values in young people. Many teachers and parents believe America is the best country in the world, and want their students/children to ‘experience poverty’ so that they will ‘realize how good they have it.’ This type of program sometimes comes from a charity mindset (donor/recipient, rich/poor, us/them, developed/developing) and is based in beliefs about philanthropy that are prevalent in the US (and apparently in Canada, Australia, Europe and some other places too). These kinds of programs seem to be the most common and the easiest to sign up for.  (See @TalesfromthHood’s series on American Culture 101, 102 and 103 and related discussions.)

  • Those who participate here are often students that need to fulfill community service requirements for graduation. They may also be from church groups or other organized groups that do volunteering as a part of their culture, their way of being, and their belief structure. Many people in the US feel guilty that they are spending money on a vacation and want to alleviate their guilt by doing a bit of ‘service’. Or they are at a time in their lives where they have the means to ‘give back’ and they want to do it physically and personally, in the ‘poorest’ of places, and/or where it’s most convenient for them (like while they are on vacation). There is a belief in the US that giving money is ‘not enough,’ is too easy, and that if you really care, you will go and do. People are often not satisfied with ‘just giving money’ and really have a desire to try to know and understand the people that they are ‘helping’, but they don’t have a lot of time, and don’t want to become professional aid workers.

Donor engagement, fund raising, brand awareness

  • Organizations are aware that philanthropy is changing. Articles abound in philanthropic journals about how major donors are tired of bureaucracy; want to ‘do development’ using for-profit models; want to start their own organizations and get directly involved in managing projects they are funding. Organizations are also aware that younger adults, say 18-40, may not have a lot of money to give, but they are at a critical juncture where they are forming ideas about philanthropy, as well as bonds and alliances with the organizations that they will give to in the future.  NGOs are aware that Americans believe that it means more to do than to give, and that doing is a richer personal experience for donors.
  • Many organizations have programs to engage donors in ways other than giving money. They have volunteer programs; use social media to stimulate community and loyalty; build advocacy programs where donors can engage by clicking and sending something on-line or ‘like’ something to show their support. Voluntourism, exchanges and hands-on volunteering are another way to engage donors. The main goal here is not so much the advocacy or the ‘help’ that the volunteer gives, but rather the opportunity to gain an email address and build a relationship over time that turns into a loyal donor who gives what organizations really need in order to carry out their programs:  cash donations, major gifts and bequests. Advocacy and volunteering/voluntourism have an added benefit that they can also build brand awareness and PR for the organization.
  • Those that participate in this type of program are similar to those in point 3 above, and don’t want only a financial relationship with an organization. They want to do something direct and meaningful aside from giving money.

What do communities want?

I haven’t directly asked any communities or found any ‘poor’ communities themselves blogging about volunteers, voluntourism, exchange visits or amateurs.  From being involved in different negotiations around volunteers and exchanges and donor visits/trips over the years, however, here are some of the things I’ve seen, heard and experienced.

Communities (considered here as geographical or cause-based communities receiving volunteers, voluntours, exchange visits or hosting small new NGOs) that participate in these programs often hope to

  • receive funds locally to support their work
  • maintain a link to a broader movement or cause that benefits them
  • be invited to spend some time outside of their community/country in return
  • make social, financial and political connections through volunteers and visitors
  • get concrete support for a particular area or build knowledge and skills by learning from those who are volunteering
  • get some financial or other kind of direct benefits back through a project or program related to the expertise or study area of the volunteer or organization that sent the volunteer.

Communities may also take and house volunteers as a favor to an organization or institution that they are working with and as their contribution to a partnership relationship. They may genuinely enjoy the company of volunteer groups who bring a burst of energy and excitement into the community. Often projects that volunteers come to work on (eg, infrastructure, certain types of specialized training over the long term) would not be funded or available if it weren’t for the volunteer set-up or small non-profit, and communities are aware of this, so they gladly take an infrastructure project with some volunteers.

In a few cases, local people and organizations might be looking to take advantage of naive volunteers, inexperienced non-profit starters, and voluntourists. [Not forgetting here that volunteers, voluntourists, investors and non-profits can also do harm to a community and the people who live there, either intentionally or unintentionally, if they have bad intentions or don’t know what they are doing].

How is success defined?

You can tell a lot about the real reasons an organization or institution offers these programs if you can find out what the stated program goals are, or how they are measuring/defining program success.

Are they measuring…

  • development outcomes and sustainability at the community level? (eg., school attendance, quality of education, health indicators, etc.)
  • successful and sustainable entrepreneurial initiatives at the community level?
  • the number of schools, latrines, houses, etc., built in a community?
  • success in terms of a particular advocacy issue or broader movement around an issue?
  • changes in attitudes about something?
  • the number of students/volunteers/donors who enroll and complete the program/tour/exchange visit?
  • community satisfaction with the program?
  • profit from the actual volunteer/voluntour/exchange program? (above and beyond costs to run the program)?
  • the number of emails they get that they can add to their list for sending out appeals?
  • funds and donations raised during/after the program directly for the participating community?
  • funds and donations raised during/after the program for the organization’s work in general?

Who is volunteering/ overseas exchange mostly about?

I realize that there is no category above where the end goal is ‘providing communities with particular skills that only an overseas volunteer can offer’ or ‘providing necessary (unskilled, inexperienced) support in emergency situations.’ I suppose I don’t believe that organizations and institutions really have those goals for their volunteer programs, but feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.

I’m pretty sure that if you did some research, you would find that in the short term, volunteer and exchange programs are almost always mostly about the volunteer or the organization’s goals, not about the outcomes and impact at the community level. In the long term, however, they may be directly or indirectly beneficial to communities or the world at large.

I would be interested to know what, if any, is the long-term direct positive impact of volunteering/ voluntourism/ exchange visits

  • on ‘poor’ communities (do their development indicators rise?)
  • on political and voting tendencies of volunteers (do they vote for candidates who make decisions that favor the poor overseas? do they participate in direct advocacy with the US Government on issues related to their experiences?)
  • on business practices (do business owners who have volunteered implement better business practices? do they have fairer practices and policies toward developing countries?)
  • on world views (do participants see the world as more interconnected? does that impact on their personal actions and lifestyle choices?)
  • on fundraising for the organization’s general programs or for participating communities

Finally, to be honest about it, some volunteers/voluntourists/exchange visitors might not even care what the real reasons are that an organization offers these programs. They just want to travel and feel good that they are ‘helping’.

[Update: I’ve been traveling and behind on my reading – I didn’t see A View from a Cave’s entire great series on Volunteering until now. Highly recommend checking it out!]


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On the road up to Wa (Upper West Region of Ghana) last week, I noticed something. I tried to capture it on the way back to Accra, yesterday. I snapped the shots from a moving vehicle, so they are not great quality. I posted several, because the remarkable thing for me was their sheer quantity.  (I am only posting about half the shots, and I was asleep for about 4 of the 10 hour drive). See for yourself. As far as I could tell these are not mobile phone company offices or kiosks, but houses and buildings used for advertising. Reminds me of political graffiti or turf wars you see between gangs.  [Note – if you have similar shots, please add a link in the comments!]

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the road to Wa

I’m in Ghana this week for a workshop in Wa, the district capital of the Upper West Region.  I wasn’t too excited about the trip from Accra (the capital of Ghana) to Wa when I heard it was a 10-12 hour drive. I figured it took so long because the road was in bad condition, but I was wrong, it’s just a long trip and there is a lot of traffic. The road to Wa is paved.  Not with gold. Not with good intentions, just paved.  And what a difference that makes.

All kinds of vehicles and travelers use the road. Motorcycles, cars, taxis, 4x4s, Land Cruisers, big trucks, small trucks, semi trucks with trailers.  People walk and bike alongside the road.  I even saw an adolescent boy trying to rollerblade – he wasn’t getting too far in the gravel but was pretty determined regardless.

All kinds of people move in and about and around all the shops and businesses along the road… people making purchases, moving supplies, carrying firewood and water, socializing, flirting, arguing.  Vendors sell fruits, clothing, electronics, car parts, prepared food, plastics, new clothing, used t-shirts.  There are tons of stalls selling airtime  for mobile phones and entire buildings painted bright red with the white Vodafone logo on the side, not to mention doorways, sides and fronts of buildings, market stalls and taxis similarly painted.  Tigo, Glo and MTN also have their noses in the business with signs, billboards, stalls, buildings and such – obviously a lot of competition for mobile phone customers.


The road holds both opportunities and dangers. Some people go very fast and others crawl along, creating accident potential as drivers try to pass them on curves and hills.  As in many countries, a good number of crashed vehicles dot the roadside; though unlike past road trips, this time I didn’t see anyone get hit or observe any bodies lying on the road after being hit, a small crowd around them, fresh blood pooling around their head and twisted frame.   Every so often on this road to Wa, there are toll booths and customs check points.  Speed bumps slow you down as you enter towns.  Police officers stop you for no reason wanting bribes. The road is really happening.

Aside from the rich and fertile rolling hills in between the towns as we got further north, the most striking thing to me was the image of the funeral crowds. You see large groups of people on both sides of the road dressed in very fine black West African clothing with accents of red: black for mourning and red if the person who passed away was strong and in their prime; sometimes white if the person was very old.  Stunning. My colleague Stephen said that funerals happen on Saturdays and that is partly why the road is so busy on weekends.  He also said that politics paved the road, because the current vice president lives in the north and made this road a priority, helping him win the elections.

While driving, we listened to a lot of political talk radio.  Obama’s honeymoon is definitely over if those who were talking are any indication. “We thought there would be a change with Obama, but his foreign policy continues along the lines of Bush.” The commentators argued for nationalization and control of Ghana and Ghana’s resources without foreign intervention and without selling off resources to foreigners, a shaking off of old colonialism.  They heavily criticized the US’s current strategy of opening military bases in West Africa and the US’s failed and reckless policies in the Middle East. References to Chile, Castro and the CIA reminded me of the kinds of conversations you hear in Latin America.  I need to read up more on this, and find out who Kosmos (Cosmos?) is, and what their relationship is with Bush, Exxon Mobile and Ghana’s oil.  [Update: here’s some background on that: Ghana blocks Exxon Oil-Field Deal.] I miss being in Central America where I knew the history of all the politicians and movements, and could read beyond fiery words to interpret motives; where I could read my own truth into things.

As we drove along I thought about the road, and all the activity that it enables. Before my flight to Accra, I visited the  Museum of Modern Art in New York with my brother who studies biology, and we saw an exhibit about Design through the Ages.  Some of the modern pieces showed graphics or moving visualizations of communication networks and systems.  One piece tracked and visualized the movement of taxis in New York City.  Another showed internet connections across the world.  My brother and I talked about our fascination with micro and macro networks and systems… synapses in the human brain, the flow of blood in the body, the New York subways, sewers.

dusk settles on the long drive north

Looking out the window of the car on our seemingly endless drive north, I thought about the similarities between this highway and the internet — road networks and communication networks.  All the people traveling down and alongside the road to Wa. The communication among and between them.  The small and large businesses that have sprung up and are prospering because the road is there allowing access.  The opportunities and dangers, the police and the periodic barriers to speed.

I’m sitting here, 12 hours north of the capital city, uploading this post, with photos even, using 3G wireless internet. Not long ago that wouldn’t have been within my capacity to imagine.

I know there is nothing new in comparing communications infrastructure and networks to a road system. But I am struck today, after the drive to Wa, with the similarities — and the vital need for both. I’m convinced that, just like the roads that provide a basis for connection, communication and commerce; Internet, via undersea cable or mobile or whatever, is essential infrastructure for development.

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our stolen flowers, still going strong after almost 18 years.... (2009, Barrio Candelaria)

My son turns 18 today, and as always, when my kids have a birthday, it makes me think back to the day they were born and I get a little lost in the memories.

When I gave birth to my son, it was 1992 and I had been living in El Salvador for almost 1 year with my husband, Memo.  The Peace Accords had been signed a few months earlier, on January 16, ending a long and bloody civil war.  We lived in Barrio Candelaria, an old barrio in downtown San Salvador where Memo had grown up. My in-laws lived in the ‘meson’ about a half a block down from where we lived.  Memo was employed as a mechanic, making almost $100 a month and I gave evening English classes a couple times a week to the daughters of the wealthy family that lived in the Barrio (the ones who owned the corner store) to help pay for tortillas and drinks to accompany our meals.  I spent my days mopping, cooking, washing and hanging the clothes out, tending to the plants in the little cement garden in back of our house, hanging out with my mother-in-law, and doing a lot of reading.  It was a nice couple years’ break after college.  At that point we didn’t really have any plans. We were just living day to day.

Niña Alicia and I (2009)

The morning of the day that Daniel was born, I had my last visit to immigration where I picked up my residency papers.  My mother in law, Niña Alicia, walked over with me. On the way back, we stopped to pick up a ‘faja’ (girdle) which she insisted was necessary for after the baby was born.  She said that when a woman gives birth, she gets air inside which puffs up her stomach, and so she needs to wear a girdle afterwards.  I wasn’t convinced, but I would always go along with her ideas when they didn’t seem to do any outward harm.

After we picked out a faja (which I realized I would probably never wear once I realized what a faja was) we made our way home, collecting (stealing) snippets of plants from the nicer houses along the way to plant when we got back.  We always did that.  Niña Alicia had an amazing green thumb, so we always had a nice garden, even though my father in law wouldn’t allow us to break the cement to plant anything in the ground.

We’d left the house around 7 a.m. to do our rounds at immigration and got back at 11.  Memo worked in the mechanic shop about 2 blocks from the house, and I was supposed to walk over with his lunch around then. But I seemed to have a bit of a stomach ache.  It was 9 days earlier than my April 30 due date, so I didn’t realize it was labor kicking in.  I laid down on the bed for a bit to see if it would go away, our cat, Irola, curled up next to me.  Cats always know when something’s going on.  After a bit, I got up and made my way over to Niña Alicia’s house and told her I thought we needed to get the midwife, and could she please let Memo know that it was time (and take him his lunch).

Daniel and Memo

Early on I had decided that I wanted a home birth.  My other options were the public maternity hospital or the social security hospital, and at that time my Spanish wasn’t so great. I worried that the male doctors would come over and gawk at me out of curiosity – I’d certainly had enough men staring, groping and asking rude questions while fully clothed and even while very pregnant – and being a spectacle at the hospital didn’t appeal to me at all.  I also didn’t want to sit on a bed with several other women in the crowded maternity ward waiting for a bed to give birth in.  I didn’t want to give birth alone, and no family members were allowed in.  I didn’t want to be medicated and didn’t trust that they would listen to me about that at the hospital. And I wanted to exclusively breastfeed and keep my baby with me, and I had heard that the hospital always took the babies away and gave them a bottle of formula right away. I had a bunch of books about midwifery and birth. I read them voraciously with the idea that I could learn enough to practically give birth by myself if necessary.

The midwife, Niña Lita, and her daughter got to the house within about an hour. Niña Lita was a wizened old woman with crinkly eyes and a sweet smile.  She said she was a Mormon, but she would invoke the Virgin Mary before she worked on anything important.  She had been coming to the house for the past several months to check in on me and to ‘sobarme’ (massage my belly).  She’d look up to the sky, say some prayers to La Virgen, warm her hands with scented oils and start massaging. She’d tell me she felt the head here, the arm there.  Her goal was to help the baby get into the right position.  (A few years after, there was a big public education campaign against midwives and traditional practices, saying that this was a bad thing to do, but it doesn’t really seem too harmful to me.)  The monthly visits helped us get to know each other and develop trust and a bond.

When she arrived to the house to help with the birth, Niña Lita patiently watched and waited and softly encouraged me.  Luckily my labor was only about 4 hours total.  I kept waiting for Memo to show up, but he never did.  Later I realized that they didn’t want him to be there.  They said that if there were too many people around, the baby would get embarrassed and wouldn’t come out.

Daniel was born right around 3 p.m.  Niña Lita cut the cord, cleaned him up and wrapped him in a blanket while my mother in law ran to the corner store and borrowed the metal scale that they used to weigh beans, rice and sugar because I insisted on knowing how much Daniel weighed.  Niña Lita carefully placed him on the balance while Nina Alicia held it up.  Nine and a half pounds.  About that time they let Memo come in and went on their way, saying they’d be back tomorrow to bathe Daniel with rose and rue to ward off any bad energy or bad spirits.

The next day after the bathing process (rose and rue is one of the most delicious scents in the world) we went to the Health Center to get Daniel’s first check up and vaccines.  A couple weeks later, we went to the City Hall to register his birth.  At that time they wouldn’t let anyone in dressed in shorts, so Memo had to wait outside while I registered Daniel and people looked on in disapproval because a father is supposed to take on this responsibility.

I had the luxury of spending the next 40 days resting with Daniel.  My mother-in-law went to the market, bought cocoa beans, and ground them into fresh homemade chocolate to drink hot to bring down my milk.  I remember eating a lot of mangos de leche too, those small yellow ones that are in season in April.  There were certain foods prohibited for the 40 day period, including eggs and beans and anything strong smelling or strong flavored.

Every day I was supposed to give Daniel a spoonful of garlic oil that Niña Alicia had prepared so that my breast milk wouldn’t upset his stomach, but I only pretended to do that.  I was also instructed to tie a ‘faja’ around Daniel’s waist (a folded piece of cotton) to keep his new belly button clean and avoid any flies or germs getting on it, and also to keep his belly button from being an outie (I stopped doing that after a day or so because I was worried it would get infected and figured it needed some air to dry out — ironically he has an outie).  I was supposed to also shape his nose and his head two times a day by rubbing baby oil on my hands, heating them over a candle, and pressing lightly to round his head and straighten his nose.

Daniel was to wear a red hat, red socks and a red bracelet with a large grey seed on it to protect him from anyone with a strong gaze who might give him ‘ojo’ (evil eye) and terrible diarrhea.  And anyone who saw him was supposed to hold him so that in case they had any underlying jealousy due to his infant beauty, it would fade out and their bad feelings wouldn’t do him any harm. I was supposed to bind him up tightly so that he would not get bowlegged, and I was scolded when I held him upright because it would make his cheeks sag down.  I had to wear socks for the 40 day period to avoid getting air in my feet which would swell my legs and stomach. I wasn’t supposed to eat dry foods like cookies or bread while breastfeeding, because the crumbs would block up the milk stream.  If I was angry or upset, I was not supposed to breast feed or the baby would get cholic.

All those rituals were something that I wasn’t sure I believed in, but they added meaning and history to Daniel’s birth.  They helped us feel that he belonged to a long line of babies that had come before, and I didn’t mind them at all.  I was surrounded by people who loved babies and wanted to hold Daniel every chance they got.

Daniel, after almost 18 years (2009, Barrio Candelaria)

We didn’t have any money, so we didn’t have any of those typical things that accompany babies in many families.  We had no bottles, diaper bags, disposable diapers, baby food, high chairs, strollers, infant seats, cribs, car seats, playpens, jumpy chairs or the like.  As he grew, Daniel continued to sleep in our bed, and when he started eating table food, he would sit on our laps and eat from our plates. He was held and carried until he could walk, and then he walked until he was tired and was carried again.  He was never strapped in and confined – he learned boundaries without physical restraint. And I have a little theory — that this helped him learn to manage freedom and establish internal boundaries and limits.  (Don’t get me started on parents who put leashes on their kids!)

Daniel played outside in the alleyway. He got dirty. He got scraped and bullied.  But there was always a neighbor around to call over to one of us:  ‘Niña Liiiindaa, Daniel is playing in the dirty water!’ ‘Niña Aliiii, Daniel is jumping up and down on an ant hill!’

When we moved back to the US in 2001 and I saw women struggling to manage work and day care and all the accessories associated with babies, I realized how privileged we were in those early years.  Daniel talks about those days too. He realizes how lucky he is to have grown up in the Barrio, like those little snippets of plants Nina Alicia and I would pick up on our long walks and that still thrive in front of her house, 18 years later.

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There are surely enough travel blogs out there, but given how much travel I do and my recent hiccups getting home from Benin (eg., 5 day total delay), I thought I’d throw together some of the things that keep me sane and somewhat prepared when I’m on the road…. I normally travel to Africa and Latin America, so these ideas may not be useful to people traveling to other places.  I have geared them towards women, though they might be useful to men also…. Ladies, add your tips to the comments section!

Breasts, shoulders, thighs, knees and ankles. Do a little internet research before you leave.  Observe what local women where you will go are wearing in pictures or on other people’s blogs. Especially notice the attitude towards breasts, shoulders, thighs, knees and ankles. In many places, for example, breasts are not a big deal, but thighs are.  Keep that in mind when you pack and in your behavior when you arrive. Don’t wear tank tops/spaghetti straps if you don’t see local women wearing them.  Same goes for shorts and capris or tight clothing.  This may be different if you are a teenager and traveling with a group, but I still recommend against a lot of thigh action if you want to be taken seriously and to be respected.  There may be different dress codes depending on urban and rural, so observe that and be respectful, be smart.  And if you are not, don’t be surprised if you get unwanted attention.  Maybe not the most feminist thing to say here, just being realistic.  People will often cut you some slack knowing that you are foreign, but when I travel, I tend to go for respecting local customs over my right to self-expression in my attire.

Sweat – Not a nice topic for many of us, but if you are someone who sweats (I always envy those people who don’t) it’s a fact of life when traveling somewhere hot. You’ll often be advised to wear clothing made out of lightweight fabric, however this kind of fabric shows every drop of sweat. Skimpy underwear does not absorb sweat and that fact will express itself on your clothing, especially when you are forced to sit in a hot car, meeting or community for several hours.  Not attractive.  Cotton boy shorts are a good alternative to the sexier variety of under things, as is clothing made out of thicker fabrics.

And speaking of undergarments – I get really annoyed when I see young women who, in the name of modesty or fitting in with local culture or just being hippy backpackers wear long flowing skirts without realizing that they are completely see through when walking in the sun! Do us all a favor and invest in a slip.

Tattoos.  You may get stared at for having visible tattoos.  You’ll want to decide how you feel about that.  I normally keep mine covered until people get to know me a bit so that any judgment comes later in the relationship. Since a lot of Americans have them these days, it’s also kind of fun to explain that tattoos are part of our coming of age ritual.

Packing – If you’re a frequent traveler, keep a second set of travel stuff right in your suitcase.  I keep a plastic Ziploc bag with less than 3 oz. quantities toiletries in it and just refill them before I leave and stash them on the top of my carry on for easy removal at security check points.  I keep all my favorite warm weather travel clothes in my suitcase. I have a checklist that I run through before I go to add anything that’s missing.  Makes for much easier packing.

Luggage – Put some identifying marks on your luggage so you can spot it when you arrive.  Assume it might be delayed by a day or so, and be prepared in case it is.  I do this by always packing any equipment, a change of clothes, and any essentials in my carry on.  This includes a small quantity of any printed materials I need if I am presenting at a workshop, just so that I won’t be left hanging.  I always take my laptop.

Travel socks – They are dorky but they keep your ankles from swelling and you from looking like you have tree trunks for calves upon arrival.  They also help prevent a potentially fatal condition (deep vein thrombosis) where blood clots form due to long flights.

Shoes – If the climate is hot your feet may swell and your shoes will be tight, especially if you are walking or standing a lot. This is most pronounced in the evenings.  Bring shoes that are a bit loose to be more comfortable.

Flip Flops – I wear them whenever I can get away with it, but sometimes they are seen as a sign of disrespect.  If you’re on any kind of trip where you need to do business or represent at any kind of function, or train a group, bring some sandals that don’t look like flip flops, at least for the first couple days. Do bring the flip flops for sketchy showers.

Sarong – Pick one up somewhere next time you see one.  They double as a scarf for freezing plane trips, and a skirt for when your luggage gets lost, you want to visit a pool or beach, or you need a cover up in a pinch, like if you have dinner in your room and want to throw something on to cover your shorts/your thighs when your meal or beer arrives.

Coffee press – If you are a coffee addict and are traveling to a country that produces wonderful coffee, rest assured that you will be served none of it.  You will get Nescafe.  I bring my own travel coffee press (pick one up for cheap at REI) and some ground coffee.  You can almost always get boiled/hot water.

Food – If you are vegetarian, pack granola bars, a jar of peanut butter, some chocolate, and some of those little cheese hunks wrapped in red wax… they last up to a week or 2 without refrigeration (if you’re not squeamish), and taste really good after a few days of full-on starch meals (eg., vegetarians often get a plate of bread, rice, pasta, potatoes and green plantains for lunch and dinner and some more bread for breakfast).  Try to make friends with your hotel or workshop venue cook and ask if they could make you some beans or cooked vegetables.  Make sure you don’t refer to yourself as a vegetarian without giving some suggestions of what you do eat, or you may get raw vegetables and salad which often lead to amoebas and giardia.  Buy some fruit when you see it. Bring a knife from home to cut it up and be sure to wash and dry it well before digging in.  Fancy hotels will often have no idea how to feed you so look forward to a lot of French fries and omelets.  Local hotels or hosts will usually make an effort using what they have available.  Don’t assume that your fancy hotel food is safer than other food.  Different bacteria is different bacteria and your system just may need to adjust.

Bottle opener – Light, easy to pack, and a life saver when you have to buy your beer in advance or want to drink it in your room on a hot evening.

Ziploc baggies –Freezer size zip lock baggies seem to always come in handy for something.

Flashlight.  A small flashlight is useful for frequent power cuts. Especially for visiting bathrooms outside your sleeping area at night.

Towel – Often small hotels will not provide towels, or will give you a non-absorbent hand towel.  If this is a problem for you, bring your own towel.

Mosquito net – You can never count on a mosquito net.  Do yourself a favor and purchase your own.  I bought my own self-standing mosquito net (a “travel tent”) which has been a life saver.  Light weight and convenient, it sets up on any single bed or even on the floor.  It means you get sleep without being woken up by mosquitoes buzzing in your ears, and you can avoid taking malaria pills (well, unless you’re working for an organization that makes them mandatory….)

Laundry soap/clothesline – I usually pack a clothes line to string up in my hotel room, and a baggie of powdered laundry soap.   You can also get these when you arrive. You can pack lighter if you wash things out in the evening. If you’re in a hot climate they will dry in less than 24 hours.  When Air France lost my bag in Togo, I made it through 9 days by washing in the evening and re-wearing in the morning.

Water – If you see a bucket in your room, it is a sign that the water goes off.  Keep it filled or you may be in for an unpleasant surprise when you go to take a shower.  There’s quite a talent in toilet flushing with buckets.  Experiment and soon you will learn how to economize on water use and keep the bathroom area clean as well. I got through each day in rural Rwanda on one jerry can by being smart about re-using my bathing water for the toilet, etc.  Get a plastic cup at the market to make it all easier.

Candles – Same as a bucket – candle in your hotel room means that the power goes off fairly often – be prepared.  Charge up all your stuff whenever there is available electricity.

Electricity adaptors – Often your room will have only 1 or 2 outlets, (if at all when you’re out somewhere really rural).  A 3-plug + an adaptor are handy for charging up 3 things at a time instead of juggling them one after the other.  Google “electricity converter” or “electricity adaptor” something like that before you leave and get some plug adaptors of your own. It gets annoying when people are always asking to borrow yours, and your hotel will not have them unless you’re traveling in high style.

Check in – Check in on-line if you can.  If not, get there early enough to get a window seat on long flights.  Don’t expect any special attention unless you are wearing a fancy suit and a big watch.

Airport pick up – Assume that no one will be there to pick you up from the airport.  Maybe this is just an issue with my organization, but it happens quite often.  Before you leave, be sure that you write down the address and phone numbers of your office, any contact persons, and your hotel.  (I once arrived in India without this information…. not wise).  This is also helpful to keep handy when filling out paperwork at the airport upon arrival.

Flight delays and ticketing – Be aware that once you purchase your ticket, Orbitz and the like won’t help you much as they transfer the ticket over to the airline systems.  I found out last week when stuck in Benin for 4 extra days that your ticket will not have a phone number on it, or it will be an 800 number, which only works in the US.  Try to get a non 800 number before you leave in case of anything.  When in a real pinch, send out pleas for help on Twitter and the community will get you the phone numbers you need.

Cash – Some places only change $20 bills or less.  Other places give a better rate for $100 bills.  Do some research.  Change money in the airport when you arrive if the agencies are still open. Assume you may not have access to an ATM when you arrive.  Assume your hotel may not have cash to change money for you when you need it.  Assume you will wait for 2 or 3 hours at a bank to change money, and will need ID to do it.  Know that every time you ask your organization’s driver to do these types of things for you, you are probably ensuring that his day is that much longer. (Drivers in my experience have the worst rap, always having to arrive before everyone and leave after everyone’s all taken care of, and they don’t get any recognition for their work).

Communications – Get an unlocked cheap phone and buy a local SIM card and some airtime on arrival.  Check before you go which network has 3G or Edge if you plan to use it for internet.  Download the software to connect your phone to 3G internet before leaving.  If you travel often, it can be worth the money to invest in a phone that connects to internet.  If you are a Twitter or Facebook freak, install Snaptu for Twitter/Facebook on your phone.  Outlook doesn’t work on all phones, so I do an out-of-office reply giving people my phone number for emergencies.  I create a rule to auto-forward my work email to my gmail.  If you use an i-phone and want to get some extra mileage out of it on the plane/before you jump into local phone/local SIM mode, Duracell makes a $17 charger that gives you an extra 3 hours.

Medications – I don’t like taking medicine.  I do however have a prescription for Ambien for sleeping on flights. That means I can sleep all night on a plane, get some coffee when I arrive, and get straight to work, and I can avoid arriving a day or so early to acclimate.  Never take a sleeping pill before your flight is in the air in case you have to deplane!  Get a prescription for Cipro before you go.  Take it if you have a bad stomach w/fever for a couple days. Then eat lots and lots of yogurt when you get back home as Cipro depletes your good stomach bacteria.  (*Note – I’m not a doctor and am not giving medical advice here, just telling it like I do it!).

Malaria – I never take malaria pills.  They make me tired and nauseous which means I can’t work, so what’s the point?  And the pills prescribed by your doctor at home may not be effective for the zone or area that you are traveling to because of how the disease evolves.  Decide for yourself, but if you are careful, you can get by without them.  (Again – I’m not taking responsibility for this if you follow my advice and you do get sick).  I prefer using my mosquito net, wearing long pants/long sleeve shirts in the evenings, and using hard core bug spray on exposed skin.  Beware that many bug sprays will eat through nail polish.  My toenails normally look like there is chewed up gum residue on them by the time I get home.  Dark clothing attracts mosquitoes so be aware of that.  Don’t be surprised if sometimes there is a cloud of them swarming over your head if you have dark hair…..  Never take Lariam.  I know of a couple cases where the side effects caused permanent psychological damage to colleagues.  I don’t really know why it’s still prescribed actually.

Marriage proposals and unwanted attention – I could write a whole book on this, but in an effort to be succinct….  Ladies, if you are under, say, 30, don’t be surprised if you get your fair share of suitors.  If you are over 30 and divorced or single, expect some attention from 20-something young men who imagine you to be desperate and lonely.  If you’re interested, by all means, go for it, but protect yourself just like you would when you’re at home. Don’t take any excuses.  Condoms are readily available just about anywhere, or better yet, always travel with some.  If you are American, you will likely have a reputation for being loose (thank you Hollywood and MTv) [note: adding “and all the ‘Western’ women who have helped confirm that stereotype“). If you are divorced, people may pity you.  If you are married or in a relationship, some men will still try to pick up on you.  (In El Salvador when I’d say I was married, men would often say “It’s ok, I’m not jealous”).   If you are not interested and the attention you are getting is not overly offensive, take it in stride.  Don’t be rude, but do be firm.  Deflect lightly when possible and move on, it’s OK to say no. Sometimes you may want to keep your phone out of sight so that you can pretend you don’t have one if you keep getting asked for your number.  If the attention is scary and threatening though, do whatever is necessary. As anyplace, be safe.

I’m sure I’ve forgotten something…. Add your comments below.

Update:  Here’s a great post by Scarlett Lion:  What to bring and not bring when traveling to Africa.

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Landing in Inhambane, Mozambique, the first thing you see is the blue Vodacom sign:  ‘Welcome to Inhambane – a land covered by palm trees and the best cellular network’.  I don’t usually believe ads and this time was no exception. But I have to say, it seems to be true. My sim card is actually on mCel, not Vodacom, but the coverage is still damn good.  And the two cell phone companies are everywhere. I’m not sure which I saw more of – yellow Frelimo t-shirts (elections were last week), yellow mCel kiosks or blue Vodacom kiosks.

Which reminds me that I saw a statistic last week saying that more people have mobile phones than latrines.  And I’m not sure how I feel about that….  And then I start thinking about the hierarchy of personal needs – which perhaps needs some revising.  So does communication rank higher now than toilets?  What about food? I was certainly more worried about getting online than about eating for the past 4 days (as a vegetarian, your choice is limited unless you really make an effort).  I mean, at least I got to complain about the 4 days of fried eggs on Twitter…. but what if it were access to food in general? Where would I put my effort? hmmm. I digress….

My travel diet (in addition to the eggs) has been around 5 hours of mobile internet on my laptop a day (skype, email, blogging, Twitter, maps, google translate, and a few doses of Facebook thrown in), and several mobile internet snacks from my phone itself in between. I’ve gone through about 600 credits in 5 days, or around $4/day.  I fully recognize that is expensive for someone who is not earning a US salary, but I love that I was able to just purchase a sim card, put it in my phone, hook up my phone as a modem, and ta-dah.

Yes I’m using a ‘smart phone’ (Nokia E-63), but my point is that it’s much easier to use your phone as a modem in Mozambique than it is in the US (seems the latest i-phone update disables that so I’m afraid to download the latest update) or in the other African countries that I’ve been in over the past year.  Compared to Cameroon, Senegal and Kenya where we had to purchase a special data package and get help/permission from the phone company (or were we just not doing it right? It does get easier to figure out the more you do this stuff). In any case, internet hardly worked once we finally got connected. So in that sense, Mozambique is an internet junkie’s dream.

I asked about internet as a precursor to the social media session of the Youth Empowerment through Arts and Media (YETAM) training of trainers workshop yesterday.  We are working from a secondary school about 30 km outside of the town of Maxixe, where I expected internet would be nil (and it is, except by mobile phone modem).   Several teachers and partner organization members from the area are participating. Starting on Sunday, for two weeks they’ll work with youth to use arts and media as tools in the community development process. The same arts and media are a way for youth to put themselves, their community and their issues on the global map by uploading the photos, drawings and videos they will make to the web.

As an example during yesterday’s session, I Googled the name of the school.  All we found in the first couple of pages was Maxixe and nearby towns listed, with content related to tourist beaches. There was also a blog by Lauren, the Peace Corp Volunteer who is teaching there.  Several months back when we were planning the training, Lauren’s blog was the only information I was able to specifically find about the school and area.  Because of her blog, I was able to connect her and our local staff to work together on the whole training.  After the YETAM training, the ideas is that people will be able to find information created by the community and youth themselves, from their own perspective.

I’m really excited about the good internet, because maybe then the whole process can be done from the community – including the uploading and subtitling of the videos (usually is done from the Plan office in the US due to slow connections).  That will be huge in terms of community and youth ownership.  Im crossing my fingers that we can make this happen.  Or we’ll have to sue the land of palm trees and the best cellular network for false advertising :-).

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Home Again Home Again

Whew. Got home yesterday right on time with no hitches. I’m soooo tired though. I spent the whole day today cleaning and catching up on housework. Well, and I also did my taxes, so my tax refund is that much closer and that’s a relief. Tomorrow back to catching up on all my work stuff that was pending last week. I know that I have a lot to do because I was checking email last week, just not able to reply or manage any real work because the internet was not reliable…. It will be a busy week now!

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OK so I took all this video when I visited the YETAM project. Went back to the hotel, opened it and looked at it all. It was going to be turned into an amazing few testimonials about the project and its impact on the kids and community, to go with the annual report.

Then I was at the second community and my phone was full, so I figured, I’ll just delete the footage from yesterday since I already copied it to my laptop. WRONG. I looked at it but never moved it to the laptop. As I was deleting it I had this funny feeling, which I talked myself out of. But that feeling was right. I ended up deleting all the footage from the YETAM project!! Argh.

So I guess the lesson is – never try to manage stuff like that when you’ve had no sleep and are jetlagged! wah. 😦

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