Wednesday, November 13, 2013

In the Aftermath

As the world knows, last Friday a super typhoon devastated several communities through the Visayan islands of the Philippines. The media has been covering a variety of stories ranging from the infants who have been born in post-Yolanda rubble and are in desperate need of attention to the slow delivery of aid. The numbers of those who have lost their lives is debatable, and the numbers of people who will continue to lost their lives in the coming days is equally debatable as many regions have yet to be reached. Images of the destruction are paralyzing, and leave many of us with feelings of hopelessness. 

A few days before Haiyan/Yolanda made landfall I was skyping with a friend who is in the middle of making a decision about living and working in a developing country for two years. He asked me some questions no one else has asked me, questions I don't think I've even asked myself since being back from the Philippines. He asked me how I handle knowing I just got on a plane one day and left my community behind. He asked me if I struggle with guilt on a regular basis for living the life I'm now living after living such a different life just a year ago. 

I think the answers to these questions are complicated, and I think they depend on my mood and the worldview I may possess on any given day, but largely I would say, "Yes. it is hard to know how easy it was to get on a plane to leave a life I had shared with such amazing people for two years. It is hard to know how easy it was for me to adapt back to life hear. It is hard to have moments of guilt and to wonder where they come from, then think back to the Philippines and know how much I could be doing for people there with the money I spend here on a dinner."  

Now, these statements are even more true. I wish i was there to help. To burry bodies, unblock roads, search for water for mothers who have just given do anything that needs to be done. But, I am here, and from here I will do what I can with your help. 

My island was not affected in the super typhoon last week, but I spent some time in Tacloban and Baybay, two of the friendliest places I had been during my time in the Philippines. Several families took me in and treated me as a one of themselves. They were comfortable people to be with and refreshed me during a time when I needed to be re-inspired and reenergized. 

The islands that were hit by Yolanda were home to several PCV's. Some I knew, and many I've never met. Several volunteers were on Leyte and Samar when Haiyan/Yolanda hit. All of the PCVs that were serving in the affected areas have now been evacuated, though it wasn't until after the storm. They were consolidated in a hotel in Tacloban, the largest of the devastated cities, and when they emerged from the hotel after the storm passed, they realized that not much more than their hotel was left standing. They were lucky. They were especially lucky in that the US State Department had already mobilized to come rescue them. One of the PCVs reported this: 

"We were airlifted today by the Philippines military on a C-130, the planes they transport tanks in, herded like cattle with little children, packed to capacity, from Cebu City then to Manila, where I am now. We walked for three hours to the airport, starting at 4 a.m., in darkness, in a group of PCVs, Filipino rescue workers, foreign tourists, and families with children, in a city without power, lighting our way by our cell phones. Dead, black and bloated bodies lined our route, and we tried to avert our eyes while the news people took photos. Somehow we survived the typhoon in our concrete, mostly windowless hotel, just by accident. When we emerged, the devastation was complete and chilling -- no power, no food, no water, no contact with any type of rescue. A poor young woman lay dead right outside of our hotel -- the streets were flooded, houses floated down the street, lines were down everywhere, and cars were overturned in heaps; we did our best to figure out what we should do..." 

The PCV who wrote that above statement was on the same plane as the news crews from CNN, BBC, etc. and those reporters told him that they'd covered Haiti, Katrina, and a variety of other horrendous natural disasters, but that they had never seen anything like this. They were having a hard time finding the words they would use to report the story. Many of the videos the news outlets gathered had to be censored because they were too graphic to air. 

The volunteers and tourists that were air-lifted are the lucky ones. It's those who were left behind that we all should worry about. The estimates of over 10,000 dead are still just an estimate, but that number can be lower if aid can reach those who survived the initial storm before they die from lack of food, clean water and medicine. As often happens in disasters like this, the aid arrives at the nearest airport, desperate people are already lined up at the airport, and by the time all of those people receive aid, there is none left to spread out beyond the airport or city limits. Some of the hardest hit municipalities are far from the city - in fact, one report said that the 3.5mi road from Tacloban to one of the municipalities is taking rescue workers more than 6 hours to traverse because of downed trees and power lines. 

While I'm fortunate to not directly know of anyone who was killed, is missing, or was rendered homeless by the storm, many of my PCV friends lived in and served those very communities that have now been flattened. They have yet to be able to make contact with their host families, colleagues and friends. They don't even know if their loved ones are alive. One friend said she was online chatting with friends in her community on Friday night, before the storm hit and they said they had gathered everyone to the school gym so that they would be safer than in their homes. She hasn't heard from them since that night, and when she saw aerial footage of the town, she saw that the gym was flattened. It's a horrible feeling being so far away and not being able to help. 

While other volunteers have been helping map the affected areas in order to facilitate aid delivery, we've been working together to make contact with people who are in a position to get aid directly into those remote communities that have yet to receive any aid. We're working with the mayor and local officials from one of the remote municipalities who were able to evacuate before the storm. Some of those more connected and powerful friends have arranged convoys and are packing up supply trucks to drive from Manila. We are waiting to hear back that they are able to make the trip successfully without being ambushed and looted before reaching their destination. If they are able to successfully reach those remote areas, some of our funding will be directed toward their efforts. If not, we will donate the ongoing funds to the agencies who are proving to be the most effective at distributing aid and helping to rebuild. 

This is not a hopeless situation. It is incomprehensible, and it is horrific, and it is beyond devastating, and it is going to be a long and hard road to recovery, but it isn't hopeless. The sooner aid can reach the people in remote places that have been isolated until this point, the better their chances at survival are. Filipinos are resilient and industrious. They will overcome this, but your help is needed. 

Please consider donating. If you are interested in giving directly to the communities where PCVs lived and served please let me know. You can email me at and I will put you in contact with some Returned Peace Corps Volunteers who are collecting donations to send to their municipalities, host families, and colleagues. I highly recommend doing this as it is the only way to ensure money reaches many of the people who have yet to see aid. 

If you are more comfortable donating to large charities here is a list of various organizations that are actively working on the ground and are expanding their service day by day. 

Thank you for taking the time to read this and for supporting the people of the Philippines. 

Sunday, October 27, 2013

life outside the glass

I was reading a friend’s blog the other day. He’s spent the last year and a half or so travelling throughout Asia.  He’s currently in India and has been writing a lot about the intensity of India. I find these posts somehow reassuring and comforting. I went to India four years ago. It’s been a while. Yet, my time in India is still impacting and influencing me. I still spend a lot of time trying to sort out my experiences in India and what they mean about me and about humanity as a whole. My time there was a bit of a whirlwind. It’s a massive country and far too complex for anyone to put into words. I had good experiences. I had bad experiences. I had frightening experiences. And I had serene experiences filled with great peace.

This is one of my stories from India, a story a few people know but many don’t. A story that will only show one small part of India, but a part that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get out of my mind.

There’s not really a lot to say about this moment. It happened so fast. She was there, then she was gone. My friend and I took the same route everyday after our internship back to our apartments. We passed the same people who made their homes on the street everyday. Babies were born on the streets, and the old died on the streets. People made their beds, their bathrooms, their kitchens on the street and others walked over them, and around them, and sometimes, it seemed, through them.

I know that there are people without homes in the U.S. and just about every other country in the world. I have seen poverty before. I have seen kids living their lives underneath bridges and billboards. It’s different in India though. There are just so many people on the streets. It’s overwhelming. You don’t know how to help. You don’t want to invade their family spaces, but you also need to walk down the street. You don’t want to feel pity cause pity is one of the worst things you could feel for another human being, but sometimes you know that that one child or that one mother caught a brief glance of pity from your face. You don’t want to be overcome by great sorrow, you want to talk about your day and laugh together as you walk, but sometimes it’s too much.

We walked the same route everyday. One day as we were approaching a home furnishing store we saw a giant dump truck blocking the road. We watched a few police officers get out of the truck, walk over to a homeless lady, prod her a bit, then scoop her up with a shovel, dump her in the back of the truck, and drive away.  Just like that she was gone. Her tattered blankets remained on the sidewalk, under the awning of the home furnishings store. Shoppers went in and out as if nothing had just happened.

A lady invisible to the world had died without anyone to mourn for the life she has left or to celebrate the life she will go next, without anyone to give her a proper funeral, without anyone to cry her name, without anyone to take the time to check her pulse or hold her hand. She was there and then she was gone. Dumped in the back of a truck that was going to pick up other people who had become one with the streets—people who lived their entire lives, from birth to death, through monsoons and droughts, on the other side of the glass. 

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

11 Weeks!

In 11 weeks I’m moving back to the U.S. To say I’m excited would be an understatement. Anytime I think about it I get an overwhelming feeling of rightness. Not that there is ever one right or one wrong decision, rather I can just feel that I’m ready to be back for a while. I’m ready to be close to the people I love whose lives I’ve missed these last couple years. I’m ready to be in the California sun. I’m ready for the diversity of the U.S. I’m ready for the mountains and the beach and the city. I’m ready for all that I will learn by moving back. I’m ready.

Just over a year ago I got back from the Peace Corps. I don’t think I would have been ready a year ago. I think I would have questioned if I was making the right choice. This year I know I’m making the right choice. Scotland hasn’t been what I anticipated it to be, but it has shown me that I’m ready to go back to California and that I wont have any regrets or questions asking “what if” when I go back this December.

This December it will have been 4 years since I graduated from college. In that time I have travelled the world and fulfilled life long dreams. I have met people that have helped me grow and have shown me the wisdom of the world. I have travelled to places I never before thought of visiting. I have learned to have faith in myself and have learned to trust other people. I have discovered what I hope to be and what is important to me.

When I think about these last four years and everything that has gotten me to this point I’m in awe of the world and the people in my life. So many good and patient and understanding and supportive people. So many unimaginable events that revealed things I never expected about myself. What a journey these last couple years have been. What a journey is waiting for me beginning in December. One journey preparing me for the other, and as I sit here right now thinking about all that has happened these last few years and all that I’m unsure about for these next couple years I feel absolute peace. That’s not always the case, but it is right now. Right now all is right. 

goodbye uganda

Tomorrow I leave Uganda. As cliché as it is, time has flow. I was only here for 10 weeks, but 10 weeks in Scotland go by pretty slowly, so I thought 10 weeks here might go by a little slower than they have.  I can’t believe my time has come to an end already. It has been such a positive experience. Everything about it worked out. It was easy and comfortable and I learned what I hoped to learn and I met good people I feel connected to.

Maybe this is because Africa really is a place I feel at home, a place that has cradled so much of who I am and has inspired so many of my dreams. Maybe this is because the more I travel the easier it gets. Maybe this is because I was here long enough to feel comfortable and get to know people, but not long enough to get frustrated with the many things I’m sure would frustrate me over a longer period of time. Maybe this is because I’m working for a great organization with great co-workers and don’t have to struggle with so many of the hurdles that I would have to face if I was working in a different environment. Maybe this is just because the universe knew I needed this. 

I’m so relieved these weeks went as they did. I was afraid the Peace Corps had ruined me so to say—making me a jaded person who was overly critical and bitter about the problems of the world. I think part of that was the Philippines and part of that was Peace Corps. I’ve met several volunteers here and while they aren’t as depressed and worn out as many of the volunteers I served with, they still have their complaints and frustrations and hardships.  So, I am not trying to belittle their experiences or exaggerate mine, but a lot of the stories that were so common within PC Philippines are absent here.  There’s something different about Uganda that makes it a lot easier of a place for me than the Philippines was.

This is not to say that Uganda doesn’t have its problems. It certainly does. In fact, as with every place, there are many problems: widespread corruption, a president who refuses to leave office, unsustainable population growth, malnutrition even though Uganda is a rich and fertile land with excellent agricultural production (many reasons for this), poverty with the average family earning just $400 a year, HIV/AIDS which some say is on the decline while others say is on the rise with increasing prostitution, domestic abuse, the commonality of rape, a lack of natural resources, dwindling water supplies, widespread human rights abuses especially towards anyone who is homosexual, a lack of education and the world’s youngest population, which could be a great asset but it’s currently a problem for the development of Uganda, just to mention a few.

I am not saying Uganda is a Utopia. But, I am saying Uganda has been very good to and for me. I saw people who listened to and respected each other. I saw people loan each other money and food when needed. I saw people in the upper class of Ugandan society take time to say thank you to cleaning staff and the staff providing tea. I listened to people discuss religion and politics and society while doing their everyday tasks. I heard people question the way things are and I heard people disagree and argue about the way things should be. I saw people pet stray dogs and tell me not to fear the stray dogs because dogs are human friends.  I’ve even seen people feed stray dogs. I’ve seen people wrestle with the problems facing their communities, and attempt to put together solutions. I’ve been free to speak my mind and be myself without judgment. I’ve become a friend opposed to just a foreigner temporarily visiting.

I’ve also met some great people who are living and travelling through Uganda.

Some of the people living here who I am very grateful for are:

Everyone who works at the hostel—
1)   Benjamin is the manager/receptionist. Since day one he has helped fill me in on life in Entebbe and has helped me countless times with basic things. We’ve also gotten to talk a bit about Ugandan politics and the future of the country. Always friendly and smiling, and always very patient with me and the many other mzungus.
2)   Kevin is one of the ladies who works at the hostel. I think she’s the person I was closest to. We spent a lot of time doing laundry or just hanging out when there wasn’t much work to do talking about life and our pasts and our goals. She said many foreigners make fun of her name since it’s a “guys” name. Leave it to foreigners to determine what names are right or not for people. She has a large family with many siblings. She is the only “independent” one. Every month she takes part of her earnings and buys sugar, soap and other household goods to send back to her village. She said if she doesn’t buy the items then the money is wasted on alcohol etc. She loves dancing but doesn’t go to clubs. Just dances by herself in her apartment. She also doesn’t want to get married or have kids anytime soon and her favorite movie, which she let me borrow but I couldn’t watch due to no cd drive on my computer, is “Think Like a Man.” She’s strong and determined and hard-working, and very much able to laugh and find joy in everything she does.
3)   Phyllis is another lady who works at the hostel. She usually works in the kitchen. She’s hilarious and has a strong personality/attitude. When people complain she just rolls her eyes. Whenever there is a strange person (her and I usually think the same people are strange) she looks at me, we both roll our eyes, and we both laugh. She loves watching soap operas and dresses with as much attitude as she has.
4)   Brenda is Kevin’s pal. She’s classy and more reserved than the other ladies. She’s got a warmth and softness about her.
5)   Kanan is a guy who works in the hostel. Since I’ve met him he’s been smiling no matter what else is happening in the hostel. He is sweet and nervous. Sometimes I have to switch rooms and without fail when I get home from work he has moved all my stuff for me and organized my room just how he knows I do it. He thinks I should already have a few children, but not too many because people need to stop having 20+ kids (he has 22 siblings). He thinks it’s funny that I’m so good at hand-washing my clothes. I appreciate that he thinks I’m good at hand-washing my clothes (other than my host family many Filipinos told me I had a very strange and not good method of hand-washing). He also tells me I should be fatter because men like fatter ladies. Oh beautiful Uganda.
6)   The guard, whose name I still don’t know, has a love hate relationship with me I’m sure. Every time I ask him to help me he begrudgingly helps me while usually mumbling under his breath. He is the one who helped me at 4:30 am the first night I arrived with nowhere to go. I thought he always hated me cause he always had to stop what he was doing to let me in the gate or help me with the internet (he also is the internet man), but when I came back from Rwanda at 2 am he was at the gate waiting for me and told me they had missed me. He said that he was worried cause he knew my plane was supposed to arrive at 10pm (we were delayed cause the plane was “broken” and couldn’t fly). That’s why I think he secretly loves me even if I’m a hassle.

The guys I work with. I’m not sure they would like being on this blog, so I wont put their descriptions here. But they’re great and have taught me a lot.

Gertrude, who I already wrote about.

The kids who live in one of the areas I pass to get home from work everyday. Very few people can say my name. Most people call me Katrin, but these kids call me Klane…like plane.

Brenda is a teenage girl who works at the Ugandan version of a sari-sari down the street from my hostel.  I met her right after I arrived. She saw me walking and asked if we could be friends. Every time I pass the shop, which is at least once a day, we talk. She wants to be a journalist and she had her first prom this year. She is the oldest of at least 6 kids. She’s very curious and asks a lot of questions. A very good skill for a journalist. Also, her English is better than mine. I hope she’s able to achieve everything she wants.

As far as travellers go, I’ve met my fair share over the last few months. Most I only see or talk to for a night, but there are a few who have stayed longer and I’ve gotten to know better. Then there are also those who I only knew for a night, yet it feels like we knew each other much longer.

Dientje is a woman from the Netherlands, originally from the Caribbean, who was stranded in Entebbe for a few days in the middle of an East African trip. She used to be a VSO volunteer in Tanzania and is absolutely in love with East Africa. She is fluent in Kiswahili (although it isn’t spoken here) and seems completely assimilated into East African culture and society. She lives back in the Netherlands now, but misses East Africa so much that she became a tour guide during her summers, leading safaris throughout the area. She is full of respect and graciousness which she extends to everyone she meets. To her the world and everyone in it is divine and good. She is divine and good.

Helen is a British lady who is living in South Sudan. She spent a few nights here in Entebbe while waiting for her friend to visit and while visiting her boyfriend whose family is here in Entebbe. She is one of the most open-minded and pure people I have ever met. She doesn’t see bad in anyone or anything. She loves dancing and adventure and the spirit of Africa. She has no regard for people who try to tell her what to do and sees everyone equally. One of my favorite stories is she dated a homeless heroin addict—not that I like that he was a heroin addict, but it shows she sees the value and importance of every person and doesn’t pass anyone by. It’s evident that she is loyal to the people in her life and she has an underlying feistiness about her, which made for good stories as she’s a missionary for a pretty conservative sounding organization. 

Sofie and Gyanesh are a couple I met on my Nile rafting trip. They’re great people, both individually and together. Gyanesh is from Nepal and Sofie is from Norway. They met on a biking trip in Japan. The world works in pretty great ways. Gyanesh is already a doctor and Sofie is in med-school doing an internship here at the largest government hospital in Kampala, Mulago Hospital. They were great people for me cause they were laid back and struggled with a lot of things that I did associated with the rafting trip, the place we stayed, and the relationship between the tourism industry and the local communities. Sofie thought about the world in a similar way to me. It was refreshing to have some of the conversations we had about dependency, aid, and development. Both were interested in water issues, which I enjoyed talking about as well. While they were in a group of ten they spent the night after rafting with me and the group of guys I hung out with at the hostel (more on them later) and then when their friends went biking the next day they went into town with me. It was a nice two days with them. It’s always refreshing to be around kindred spirits. One of my favorite things about them though was that they were as amused by the next set of guys as I was.

I spent two nights and three days in Jinja for my rafting trip. The first night I got there I obviously didn’t know anyone. The main room was an open-air room that overlooked the Nile. Absolutely gorgeous, and very cliché-backpackers hostel type of place. Lots of couches and lots of beer and lots of people just hanging out. I sat alone and was soon called over by this group of kayaking guys. They had all just met at the hostel, but for my time there they were always together and they soon adopted me into their group. Let me just say these guys were something. Each of them had very strong personalities and then the way they interacted with each other was thoroughly entertaining. I think I was so amused by these guys cause they reminded me a bit of older versions of my neighborhood growing up.

I shared a room with the two American guys of this group. When I first went in to put my stuff down there was a guy in bed. It was the middle of they day. He said he was very ill. He had a giant bucket beside his bed. This guy, Andy, was sick for the entire three days I was there. He seemed to be a trooper though. He was on a white water kayak trip with his friend, Ted. They had kayaked the Zambezi and then come to kayak the Nile.
Ted’s an energetic guy. Loves kayaking. Seems to love life in general. I guess people who take time to go on kayak, or similar types of, trips typically do enjoy life. Everything excited Ted, but I don’t think he was very aware of a lot of things. For instance one night he was talking about kayaking to a village a ways down the Nile. He met a 19 year old guy there who was telling him about the circumcision ritual that takes place when guys in the village are 18. This blew Ted’s mind. Everything about the ritual and practice. He was so animated in telling the story about this guy and in telling his own thoughts on all of this. He also really wanted to eat food that wasn’t prepared at the hostel. So one night he went out to the street to eat some stew from one of the nearby food stalls. You would have thought this event of getting stew was better than striking gold. Ted made it sound like the greatest event of his life. Ted took everything with stride and seemed open to things and curious, but didn’t hesitate giving his opinion, which was often very loud and very American, on things.

Then there was Pierre. His father’s French, but he grew up and still lives in London. He’s an orthopedic surgeon and was treating Andy. This guy was something. He’s the one who first brought me into this motley crew. Pierre was vulgar and shallow and almost impossibly superficial. He had no care about being culturally sensitive or respectful. He was the ring leader of the group, uniting guides and guys rafting/kayaking the Nile for the first time. I think he was also a really good person though. I think a lot of his image was a front. He told me he wants to retire soon and do something that lets him spend more time in nature skiing and kayaking. He likes politics and international relations and is beyond opinionated when it comes to social issues. Most of the time he would mock various women for being fat or obnoxious or stupid or dull. This included his girlfriend who he referred to as “boring.” But, when the issue of circumcision came up he went on a giant rant about how terrible female genital mutilation is. And when no one was looking he’d be playing with the local kids and petting stray dogs.

There were also a few raft and kayak guides. These guys are everything you imagine raft/kayak guides to be. They were from Canada and the U.S. They loved adrenaline, beer and were tired of drunk girls puking all over the place after the hostel’s famous booze cruises. These guys, along with Ted, Andy, and Pierre loved recounting their most epic rapids. They’d been everywhere in the world rafting and kayaking and working in hostels. Living the life. There was also an Australian guy who wasn’t a kayaker or rafter. Just hanging out. He seemed in awe of everything the kayakers were talking about. He was more reserved and mostly just looked as stunned as I felt by some of the conversations.

My two nights with these guys made me feel at home. I was so entertained by the way they all interacted with each other and the way they all approached their time in Jinja. I felt like I was back in Erie on a summer night for a bit. While many of the things these guys were saying and the way they were talking about various issues was offensive and upsetting, there was something comfortable and inviting about them. I felt like I had known them my entire life and was glad they let me crash their club for a couple nights.

The last set of foreigners I met who were particularly significant to me are two stranger ladies whose names I never learned. We only had one night together in Entebbe, but I think they shared a bit of my soul, or at least they are on similar journeys to the one I’m on right now. I had a mini-life break down unsure of what I’m going to do in L.A. or where I will live or how I will adjust to being back in the states again after being away for so long. And they were great. They had similar breakdowns at the same point. After that we spent a lot of time talking about how lucky we are to have such patient people in our lives who support our wanderings and encourage us to keep doing these things that we do and who are able to calm us down and handle our constant rollercoasters of emotions and new ideas and uncertainties.

The one girl is a PhD student from Davis. She is studying something about agriculture and is specifically looking at bean seed storage in a region of Uganda. Her research is so specific and seemed really complicated to me, someone who knows nothing about bean seed storage. It was impressive though and she was so passionate about bean seeds. She loves Uganda and loves beans and seeds. She spent three years before this in South Africa studying some sort of agriculture. She is going back to the states for a few months then will come back to Uganda for two’ish years for 6 months at a time to finish her research.

The other girl is a PCV who is about to COS and head back to the states. I think every PCV ends up going back to the states significantly stranger than when they left. I also think every PCV changes pretty drastically, so the process of getting back into your old lifestyle is quite the process. You have changed, but you don’t know exactly how. And so many of the people you go home to haven’t changed. They are still doing the same things in the same way with the same friends. They believe the same things they did when you left and still think in the same way.  Meanwhile you’re no longer really American or the nationality of your host country. You’ve adopted this third nationality sort of attitude and persona. So, she was preparing for that transition as well as trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life.

It was the perfect night for me to meet both of them. Just what I needed. People who understood my anxiety and concern, while also sharing the sheer excitement and joy of moving back to the U.S. to be close to people we miss and love.

It’s amazing how people come and go from our lives. Each person leaving their mark on us. I was talking to a friend who has spent the last two years travelling and working odd jobs wherever he finds himself. We were talking about this idea that who we are is really just a series of different people we’ve met throughout our lives. The more people you meet, and the more people you let affect you, the more you simultaneously lose who you are while also building and gaining parts of yourself. When we meet people we shed a lot of the preconceived notions we have of ourselves, and we take bits of with us. We do this by learning from them and trying to carry their stories with us.  It often makes me wonder who I’d be and what I’d be like if I haven’t met all the people I have over the last 25 years. I’m grateful I’ve crossed paths with so many good people who have challenged me to live freely and fully.