Saturday, February 26, 2011

at the end of the day

We are one thousand miles away from reality. After hours and hours inside a teletransporter we arrived to never land, where fairies and gnomes quietly (or not so quietly), coexist with water and sand dunes. The morning comes and the gnomes, one by one, exit from under the rocks and go dancing on the sand dunes. They splash and sing and run, and then, towards the end of the day, the gnomes and fairies begin to fade away as the spiders of sleep attack their eyes. they fight and resist until -like a blanket- night closes their eye lids.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

So you think you want to be an aid worker?

So here’s my current situation: We are likely to move before the end of the year.

If you’ve been reading for a bit, this will ring a bell. That’s because I said it last year, and then it didn’t happen. I’m not making it up though, we are on “loan” from one post to another, from one organization to another, from one continent to another, which essentially means that every year we count down to November in order to find out if we stay for another year, or if we have to pack our bags and move along.

Unsure of our destiny, the past two years have been a continuous mental exercise of “where should we go next?” Trust me, it is an exhausting exercise.

Satori Worldwide wrote a great post on how to go about making theses calls, and with time we have learned some tools for making these decisions, but the most important thing – for me- is that you have to come to terms with what is really important to you, and be brutally honest about it. You have to go beyond what you think you should want, what you would like to want, or what your ego might want. Then you have to find a compromise between your ideal place and that of your partner, and then pray to god you get a posting that fits at least the most basic criteria from that list.

And with time things get more complicated.

When we first set out we only had to consider if the destination was a place our partner would be able to get a job in: did he speak the local language? Where there many agencies there that might be able to offer him a job? Now we have two kids, so there are a lot more things to consider: what level of insecurity are we willing to expose our kids to? What kind of tropical diseases are we comfortable with? Are there good schools in a mainstream language like English, Spanish or French?

My youngest has asthma. Back in Cambodia every time the poor bugger could not recover from a fit he had to be medically evacuated to Thailand, so what should have been a simple visit to the local hospital turned into a flight to another country with a few nights hospital stay, dropping anything that I might have been doing, and leaving his sister behind. The last time it happened my husband had already moved to the next destination, so I was alone, with two kids, and to make things just a little more interesting, Bangkok airport had been taken by protestors so we could not fly there and had to choose another destination where we did not already know the hospitals and the doctors.

So now to our list of requirements we have to add that the place a) should not have high levels of pollution, and b) has good local healthcare.

I’ve noticed that many people that read aid blogs are somewhat hopeful of joining the ranks. So let me just say this straight: it is fucking hard to balance two careers and a family with a lifestyle that requires constant movement, and where most destinations have some degree of hazard. You should also know that it is those “unsafe places” that I just crossed off my “potential destinations” map where you go to get ahead, to move up the ranks fast, so make sure to pile them in and spend as much time as you can on emergency or hardship duty stations (technically referred to as “shit holes”) before you have a little asthmatic mongrel on tow. The divorce rates are sky high, and the families that are still together fight over the few family duty stations available like our beneficiaries fight over the food we deliver. If you should be so lucky to get one of those postings, then you struggle to get a place for the kids in the (usually) one or maybe even two good international schools available.

So here I am, waiting again, except this waiting and moving game has meant that my 4 year old daughter has already been to five different day cares/ preschools. This is because there is never any planning, and there is never much time to make arrangements, as soon as you are offered a post you are expected to be able and willing to transfer (a family, a life) in one, two month max, so we have never been able to get her into our first choice school on arrival, and had to settle for something else while we waited. It kills me she has paid the price for my choices.

I am adamant that this wont happen again, but given I don’t know when or where we will be moving, it is kind of hard to avoid so, believe it or not, I am currently researching and applying to schools in the most likely destinations, in a sad attempt to ensure she has good schooling organized come September regardless of where we end up.

This is on top of the day job. So add “ample ability to keep a lot of balls in the air” to your list of required skills for working in development.

Have you done this whole school application thing these days? 400 word essays to describe strength, weaknesses and why your child is the right fit for this school; interviews; school evaluations… for a four year old!

I’ve moved country 12 times in my life. 7 of those posting I’ve done together with my husband. My four year old is on her third country. There are a lot of upsides to this lifestyle, and I will write a post on this some other day, but just make sure you know what you are getting yourself into. The logistics are hard.

Just saying.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Silver light Pagoda - Photo blog post

It's cold and I need to be reminded of the times when I was so sick and tired of the constant, humid heat.... but instead, going over the photos of our time in Cambodia has just made me miss it.

This photo was taken while we were driving from Phnom Penh to Kampot. The sun was starting to set, and every now and then we'd see the entrance to a Pagoda amongst the rice fields. When I saw this scene, and even though it was a long drive and we had the kids on tow, I made them stop the car so I could jump out with the camera. The light was perfect: strong enough to get the detail on the Pagoda entrance, to get the reflection of the grass and even the palm trees against the mountains in the backdrop. You can even see the stems on the grass and the angry clouds warning of a nearing storm, yet it is all bathed in that silver and gold light you only get when the day is about to end. I managed to take about 3 photos before the light completely changed, and the moment was gone.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Missionaries, mercenaries and misfits. How two aid workers came full circle in the development world

This is a guest post from Renee at Satori Worldwide. We met "in the field" while still relatively new moms, and spent many-a-days talking about the difficulties and challenges of balancing family life with aid work: the contradictions, the risks (particularly health risks) that we exposed our children to as a consequence of our choices. In the end, we've both chosen very different answers to our questions, different paths to solve our riddles, which is exactly how it should be.


When my husband and I began our careers in International Development, we were not missionaries in the strictest sense, though we were surely full of a non-sectarian form of ‘save the world’ zeal. The injustice of the world order, and the glamour of a life of working in far-flung places to set it right was all too appealing for two people with a high tolerance for risk.

Almost to the minute of leaving Grad School we set out on our first mission with the United Nations in Uzbekistan, and were quickly initiated into the realities of development as it then appeared: there were no quick fixes; you could work very hard and still feel like nothing was getting done; and poverty, violence & despair didn’t always seem the most inspiring work environment.

As we moved through several subsequent postings (in Europe, Sri Lanka and Cambodia), and began hauling two unsuspecting children from one home to the next, our missionary zeal seemed to morph—subtly but perceptively—into something far more sinister: the mercenary mind. Dinner conversations revolved more and more around what country we might like to live in next, or what contract type and benefits we should be pushing for, rather than the plight of the people we were meant to be serving. Our sense of social justice was ebbing under the influence of a slow and painful cynicism.

So we took stock: When was the last time we felt truly inspired? How many projects had we worked on that had been spoiled by corruption or weighted by bureaucracy? Was sacrificing grandparents for our kids and forfeiting a clean, safe, familiar place for them to grow up in really worth it? How many of our colleagues seemed jaded, high strung or burnt out? Is this the life we had dreamed of? What happened to making a difference?

In fact, we might have noticed the misalignment earlier if we had been paying attention. The symptoms of disintegration were clear. After multiple infections with various tropical illnesses (dengue, typhoid, dysentery), our immune systems had practically collapsed. Progressive irritation with the ‘system’ under which we were employed gave every conversation a world-weary, sarcastic veneer. Anxiety often deprived us of sleep, and what sleep we did get was speckled with recurring nightmares of human rights abuses we had documented, or bombs and gunfire that had gone off down the street. We felt more and more alienated from our friends and family in Canada, who seemed convinced that our life must be easy because we had a maid.

And things were getting tense at home. Frequent travel for work made Steve an absentee father and me a resentful mother. There was a growing concern over the welfare of our children, who lived under the constant threat of pollution, illness and instability. When our son Lochlan contracted a rheumatic fever related heart-murmur because of an undiagnosed strep infection (read: medical malpractice), it seemed time to cry uncle. Yes, it was definitely time to go home. And that we did. But here is the thing: home didn’t feel like that anymore.

We were now, officially, misfits.

It was then that I read a quote by Henry Thurman that practically jumped from the page.

“Don’t ask what the world needs; ask what makes you come alive, because what the world really needs is more people who are alive.”

And right there a little seed was planted… something that would help us rekindle those long lost feelings of adventure, inspiration and justice.

So we hit the road, with both kids in tow, on a quest to recover our integrity.

Along the way we met mystics and naysayers of every stripe, who, one way or the other, were all pointing toward the same grail:

Know yourself. Breathe deeply. Listen carefully. Eat real food. Connect. Create. Cry if you need to. Laugh twice as much.

And the seed began to flower. We created Satori Worldwide to share what we had learned with the people we thought might make good use of it: other, world-weary aid workers like us who want to regain their sense of purpose and passion, and need to learn how to take care of themselves so they can better serve others. We offer retreats, networks and tools that bring meaning, balance and inspiration back into the lives of global servants. So now we are “missionaries” again, promoting development with a big twist… save the world by saving yourself first.

The next Satori Worldwide retreats are 15-22 May and 12-19 June 2011 in Bali, Indonesia. Registration is open and early sign-up discounts are available so contact us at for details. Visit our blog and join in the discussion on wellness and resilience in the aid/expat world at

Thursday, February 3, 2011

a white Miles Davis~photo blog post

I was asked for a portrait "like Miles Davis by Anton Corbijn."

For months I tried to ignore it hoping it would go away, mainly because... I didn't get it. That is one fantastic photograph Corbijn did, but it's all about the texture on the black skin and the big (stoned) eyes. I didn't find it fun to just try and replicate it, plus, I didn't know how you might go about doing it with a white guy, although I did know there was going to be a lot of post editing involved...

Once we (reticently) got down to it, it started dawning on me that this was actually a really fun challenge, and that there were a lot of elements I needed to try to replicate, like the texture of the skin, the high contrast or the shine. I also understood that he did not just want me to replicate it, but to do my own take on it.

I am actually quite happy with the end result and, fortunately, so is he. I recommend you go to my photo site (click on the text) in order to see the detail properly.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Dispatches from Limbo

As her smile begins to turn sour from the realization that this game does not end well, I take my queue, blow her a kiss and drive away.

It is such a strange feeling, going no where for no particular reason. Ten minutes into what will be a two hour drive through the green musty fields of Holland, an undefined weight lifts from my shoulders. For the next three days I will only have to worry about me: just me, my body, my mind, my writing…. It is such a simple concept yet I struggle to understand it. Soon a little voice in the back of my head starts to admonish me,

“you are leaving your kids behind for this? To go get massages, do yoga, write your book which you can do anywhere.. What kind of mother are you?”

just as I am starting to feel uncomfortable another voice proudly replies

“yeah baby, you rock girl!”

I raise the volume on the car radio and try to ignore them both, as they continue to argue for a little while.

I’ve been away from my children before, but not “just because.” There is usually work, and I try to pack it in to minimize my days away, so usually, there is little time for myself, every minute is accounted for. This time there is no agenda.

It was once like this, before they came along, and I always enjoyed my time alone, but it has been so long that I wonder what it will be like, if I will get bored, if three days will be too long.

As I begin to panic I get an SMS from my husband back at the rooster. It reads:

“you deserve every minute of it”

and then I count my blessing and almost want to turn the car around and drive back home to them.


I’m in a farm surrounded by ducks, geese and peacocks. There’s a lady that comes every now and then and dips me in oil. I don’t wash it off, I don’t have to, I’m not seeing anyone, I’m not going anywhere. Another lady brings me vegetarian food and chats. I kick her out as quickly as I can, sit down to my computer and eat while the fire place warms the room. I’m in limbo, in some sort of alternate universe where I can sleep in, eat and write without having to decide who hit who first and who gets to go to the corner. I don’t have to worry about the stove or the lights that need fixing. There are things pending, things I half expected to do from here…. but lets face it, you cant call the bank from limbo, the charges alone, the spiritual ones I mean, its not worth it, plus my head seems to believe that the world ends where the fog ends, and nothing beyond that really exists.

I think limbo, a couple of days in limbo, are good for everyone’s soul.