The past two days, I spent mostly doing the last chores around the house, and laying in a hammock in the garden.
When I closed my eyes, all the sounds became so clear. The fizzling of the leaves overhead, the buzzing of the insects, the song of so many birds, the laughter of kids playing nearby.
I just lay in the hammock. Looking at the sky. At the trails of a plane.
How symbolic, laying in the cosiness of my home, looking at the trails of a plane. The dilemma of the leaving and the wanting to stay. The hollowness of the absence of loved ones leaves, and the eagerness to chase rainbows.
The pain is there. But the horizon is calling. I have to go.
The past two days, I spent mostly doing the last chores around the house, and laying in a hammock in the garden.
Lauren Bush and Amazon launched an interesting initiative worth your support.
They promote a bag, "The Feed Bag", designed to raise awareness and funds for hungry children and to help them get into school and out of hunger. Each bag sold will provide a school year of meals for one child in need and give them the hope of an education and a regular meal.
The Feed bag is for sale for US$59.95 on Amazon.com.
The magnititude of the world can be overwhelming. How massive is the number of impoverished people? What percentage of the overall population lives in urban areas? How vast is the threat of AIDS? It's hard to put things in perspective when the numbers are so large. The Miniature Earth gives a clear vista by reducing the global population to only 100, while keeping statistics the same. The effect enables us to see the differences on our planet more clearly, and perhaps consider how our actions can impact humanity.
I want to wrap up at least one more short story before I leave. It is one I have been working (read: "struggling") on since a while. About a field trip to Zambia. Tentative title "Stuck in Mpulungu". Attentive readers probably saw it appearing in the scroll-box with updates in the right column as the "next short story to be released". And then saw it being replaced with "Next short story: The Dudettes". Now it is back again.
Part of the story is how we got transport from a Belgian Air Force C130 Hercules cargo plane from Uganda to Zambia.
You won't believe this, but as I was sitting in the study editing the story (once more) this afternoon, a C130 from the Airforce flew over at a real low altitude and made a U-turn right above our house. I was just in time to snap the picture above as the plane flew off again.
Talking about coincidences, hey? Or do you think "they" are monitoring this blog? You know! "Them"! Or was it the other "Them"? Hahaha.. Anyway, I thought it was a nice gesture, of "them". I waved to say 'Hi', and went on with my business.
Yeah, yeah, spare me the jokes about the Belgian Air Force ;-) [actually I know one about the Belgian marines: they have infantry tanks with one gear forward and twenty backwards!]. YES, Belgium DOES have an air force. Seriously now: the Belgian C130 fleet is actually used a lot for humanitarian missions.
One of the things they specialize in is low altitude food drops. (I hope they were not practicing for that around MY house!) Food drops are used sparingly in humanitarian relief operations, because it costs a lot. But when trying to reach places where there are no other means of transport available, humanitarian cargo is airlifted.
Many of the places we airlift to also lack proper landing fields, so the plane flies over a special marked zone at low altitude (700 feet or less), opens up the cargo door, and lifts up its nose about 14 degrees. The food cargo, strapped onto roller pallets, slides out the cargo door and is dropped on the mark zone. The mark zone is guarded by an airdrop officer and a team of up to six people (often helicopter-ed in) which ensures the drop zone is free of people, and gives the plane an 'all clear' via radio before the cargo is dropped. Getting a 75 kg bag of beans on your head, dropped from 700 feet is not a nice feeling!
The food is packed in normal bags. They typically triple bag 50 kg maize portions in three bags normally used for 90 kgs, so the cargo has space to 'expand' as it touches the ground. The bags are double stitched. There is seldom waste because of torn bags: less than 0.5%, which is not much more than when food is transported by truck or rail. The cost is much higher though! As an example: it costs US$230-US$360 to transport a ton of food from an African port to its end destination in Sudan. Airlifting or airdropping easily costs US$450 to 1,000 per ton of food. That is why airdrops are mostly done as a very last resort.
Once the food hits the ground, the plane gives an all clear over the radio, and the air drop officer coordinates the pickup. All food bags are neatly stacked and transported to a warehouse, to be distributed later. There are rarely food distributions done at the drop zone, as 'crowds' and 'food drops' are a dangerous combination.
To continue on the example of Sudan: to reduce the proportion of airdrops AND the cost of road transport in Sudan, WFP and its partners have heavily invested in road rehabilitation in the past two, three years (since the peace deal between Khartoum and South Sudan). 130,000 metric tons were airdropped in 2005, reduced to 40,000 metric tons airdropped in 2006. In 2007, airdrop operations have stopped all together.
An additional advantage is that a road infrastructure also quickly becomes the heart of internal trade and commerce, thus stimulating the local economy.
Voila. Now you know more about food drops... Sigh, and I have to get back to my Mpulungu story. :-)
If you want to have a better idea of what logistics are involved in moving 4 million tons of food per year, watch this video (which you can also find on my video inspiration post):
"The Logistics of Feeding 100 Million People"
Pictures food drop courtesy Richard Lee/WFP, video courtesy WFP.
When US presidential candidate Senator John McCain was asked "What to do with Iran", he answered: "Well, remember that old Beach Boys' song: Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran..?"
Yeah, that'll teach them. Yippieya-hey...
Nice foreign policy statement, Mr. Presidential Candidate! I hope your electorate has learned out of the Iraq experience.
MSF (Doctors Without Borders) published the Top 10 Most Underreported Humanitarian Stories of 2006:
- The current conflict in Somalia may generate fleeting worldwide attention, but the abysmal day-to-day living conditions faced by Somalis remains largely forgotten.
- Civilians in the Central African Republic (CAR) once again fell victim to horrific violence in the latest bout of conflict in a string of coups and rebellions that have plagued the country since it achieved independence from France in 1960.
- While many people in the West consider tuberculosis (TB) a disease of a bygone era, the devastating human toll taken by the disease is increasing worldwide.
- The conflict in Chechnya and its consequences on civilians has been almost entirely hidden from the rest of the world. While it may be decreasing in intensity, for many people who lived through the ebb and flow of this bitter twelve-year war, physical and mental scars remain.
- Civilians in Sri Lanka have born the brunt of major fighting that resumed in August 2006 between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), especially in the country's east and northeast.
- Every year, acute malnutrition is implicated in the preventable deaths of millions of children worldwide. At any given moment, more than 60 million young children in the world have signs of acute malnutrition.
- In 2006, people living in the vast Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) voted in democratic parliamentary and presidential elections for the first time in decades. The elections may have thrust the DRC into the media spotlight for a brief moment, but the extreme deprivation and violence endured by millions of Congolese continued unabated and out of view.
- Colombia is now in its fifth decade of violent conflict, and only Sudan has more internally displaced people. Massacres, executions, intimidation, and fear remain inescapable parts of everyday life for civilians living in conflict-affected areas. To date, almost three million people inside Colombia have fled their homes as the result of a conflict fueled by the narcotics trade that involves government military forces, paramilitary groups, and armed guerrillas from ELN and FARC.
- With the exception of a short respite following presidential elections in February 2006, violence and insecurity was widespread throughout the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince. Even with a newly elected government in place, the violence ranged from confrontations between various armed groups in the city and the Haitian National Police and UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), to extensive kidnappings and sexual violence.
- Ongoing conflict in several parts of India — including northeastern Assam and Manipur states highlighted in last year's Top 10 Underreported Humanitarian Stories list — has gone virtually unnoticed by the outside world for years.
Pictures courtesy MSF
I used this picture in a previous post. I gave away it was somewhere in the US, but asked if anyone could guess where... Nobody apparently knew...
Well, it is in Hawaii.. Not the typical Hawaii people normally have in mind.. But it *is* Hawaii. The Big Island actually. An area called Parker Ranch.
So what was I doing on Parker Ranch? Well, not learning to be a cowboy, that is for sure! We once did a humanitarian exercise there. With the heat, the volcanic dust blowing meters high in the air each time you put your foot on the soft soil, it was one of the toughest environments I ever worked in. The fine dust got into everything.
After one week, we retreated in one of the beach hotels for a debriefing of the exercise, and the hotel staff almost expelled us from the premises. We were just too dirty. Clogged up the showers and washing machines!
So now you know. Hawaii has its volcanic deserts too!
Seven days to go on this sabbatical.
A pity I can not post the scent...
The nursery. Plants recovering from the winter
The deck chairs are ready for lazy summer evenings.
Ending this sabbatical once more feels like jumping into the void. Once more it feels like I am ending one period in my life, and starting a new one. Lemme see, for the… sixth time already :
- After working in a digital research company as a graphical expert, I stopped what I did to start my civil service at a university lab, as a software developer. People said I was nuts to give up my well paying job simply just because I refused to go to the army. I preferred doing a $150/month job for 20 months, rather than doing 10 months of army service (with all living expenses paid for).
- After 20 months, I returned to the company as a system engineer. People said I was nuts as I did not have a degree in IT nor in system engineering, so how could I make a career in that?
- Two years later, I started in an inter-bank company to manage their IT network. People said it was nuts, as by then I was well established within my previous company and had my career all laid out in front of me. So why change?
- Two years later, I stopped working all together, to write a book, and to organize an expedition to the Antarctic. This really freaked out friends and family. How do you mean, you will stop working. For how long? To do what? Go to the Antarctic???
- Two years later, I started in this ‘line of business’: the humanitarian work. People said “So you give up a career to help people you have never seen before? In the midst of nowhere, in the midst of danger? Surrounded by deceases and people pointing guns at you?”
- After moving through a number of humanitarian organisations, I got into my current organisation, by coincidence… And.. stayed there. (Eleven years already. Me, who never worked for a company longer than three years. Ever. This does say something my current employer, no?)
No wonder that people said I was nuts to give up my director’s position, my diplomatic status, and (in short)my professional life to start this sabbatical. And the same people now say "How come, you are going back to work, and you still don’t know what you will be doing, not even where you will be based?"
Somewhere they have a point in the last bit though.. In January I informed my employer I was coming back, but wanted a different position than the one I left in Dubai… Now, 10 days before starting, I still don’t know exactly what I will do. A test again for my philosophy of ‘trusting in destiny’. Will this pull me through once more?
If you take an objective look from a distance, here is the situation
- After one year of absence in a fast moving organisation, like ours, it is as if you start all over again.
- I will certainly have a new job, a new supervisor, a new terms of reference, and probably will do something I have not done before. “What” I don’t know yet. They will tell me when I arrive.
- 10 days before leaving, I still do not know where I will work. I only know I have to report for duty at our HQ in Rome. The rest of the information will follow. Probably it will be something that involves regular traveling.
- I don't know where I will be based (can be literally anywhere in the world).
- I don't know what to pack in terms of clothing, accessories.
- I don’t know if I will be in one place long enough, to set up a second home, you know, my own ‘living base’. ‘Normally’, I would pack my crates with the minimum furniture, cooking utensils, books, different clothes, all the nice to have stuff (my personal radio equipment, some IT stuff, video recorder, tapes, DVDs,…). But can’t do that. Don’t know where I will be going. Or if I will be staying long enough to set up a nest.
And it does not bother me one bit that "I don't know". Feels like jumping off the cliff -again-, trusting the parasail will open up. “Yuuuuhuuuu!” (as one of my dearest friends always says)..
So,.. ten days from now, I will leave with a backpack, a case with the minimum tools for work and a small bag with books. I will kiss Tine and the girls goodbye. And get onto that plane.
I am ready to jump…
PS: Maybe just one question: Does a parasail have an emergency chute too?
End March last year, I ended my tour of duty in Dubai to go on a one year sabbatical. Many people said I was crazy. I had a well paid job, an excellent office which we set up ourselves, staffed with superb people, all handpicked for the job. I had a nice car, and a diplomatic status. Still it was quite a shock to come back home, after years running at a high pace. Especially coming from the work I used to do: emergencies. All cool and under control one moment, and the next second my phone starts ringing, telling me about an earthquake here, a flooding there, a military coup or a civil upraising. And off went our team, and up went our working hours.. Coming back home from that environment, it felt like.. Well, how retirement probably feels… I did not have set plans for my sabbatical. As often I don’t have set plans for anything. Things just happen. It was a test for my philosophy to ‘trust destiny’. Not that I am the kind of person sitting on the side of life, and watching it pass by. But I do trust that somewhere, I will get a sign of which way to go. A sign of a road to take. And once I get onto that road, I do tend to go all the way. And you know, it still feels like I have been sitting on my bumb for a year. Never pleased. Ok, I agree, there are still some things I want to do before I leave in ten days: So now, it is time to start thinking ahead. Going back to work. Euh… What work again? Well, read about that… (ruffle of a drum) tomorrow in (more drum ruffle): “The Sabbatical. The Day After…” :-)
“Why? Why give this all up? What will you do?”, they asked me, “What will you do after that?”. I did not have any answers for those questions. I jumped into the void. Felt I had been in this ‘line of work’ for too long, felt like ‘I had seen it all, done it all’. Time to resource.
Felt fortunate in many ways, though. I have a supportive family, even though Tine did raise an eye-brow when I told her, I would stop working for a year. I also had the financial independence to do what I wanted for a while. And had a good health. So, each time people fired questions as to “Why?”, I could answer “Why not?”. Life is too short to be boring. And boredom, routine is the one thing that kills me.
So, today, with ten days to go before the end of the sabbatical year (which turned out to be 13 months), it still feels like only yesterday I arrived back home with my suitcases and bags, shouting “Honey, I am hooooome!”. Time flies. So.. it is time to take inventory of what happened. What the hell did I do with one year of spare time?
Still it was quite a shock to come back home, after years running at a high pace. Especially coming from the work I used to do: emergencies. All cool and under control one moment, and the next second my phone starts ringing, telling me about an earthquake here, a flooding there, a military coup or a civil upraising. And off went our team, and up went our working hours.. Coming back home from that environment, it felt like.. Well, how retirement probably feels…
I did not have set plans for my sabbatical. As often I don’t have set plans for anything. Things just happen. It was a test for my philosophy to ‘trust destiny’. Not that I am the kind of person sitting on the side of life, and watching it pass by. But I do trust that somewhere, I will get a sign of which way to go. A sign of a road to take. And once I get onto that road, I do tend to go all the way.
And you know, it still feels like I have been sitting on my bumb for a year. Never pleased. Ok, I agree, there are still some things I want to do before I leave in ten days:
So now, it is time to start thinking ahead. Going back to work. Euh… What work again? Well, read about that… (ruffle of a drum) tomorrow in (more drum ruffle): “The Sabbatical. The Day After…” :-)
Once upon a time, I arrived at the Dubai International Airport, and showed my UN passport.
The guy looked at the cover, and said "Bot whot contry?"
I said: "United Nations!"
He shrugged and asked again: "Bot whot contry, Unatod Notions?"
I said: "Well, it is not a country, it is an organisation. It is really 'All Nations'!"
He shook his head: "No, Unatod Notions, Unatod Notions. Unatod Steets, no?"
I was quit to reply: "No, no! Not United States, United Nations. Big difference!"
He laughed: "But wheer ees big office Unatod Notions?"
I said: "The big office? Well the main office is in New York"
He replied: "Ahhhh? New York. Unatod Steets.. You see?"
I guess he had a point. Sometimes I fail to see the difference too, to be honest.
I started this website in Jan'07. We are now three months and 50,000 visitors further down the line. I started as a complete blogging and internet newbie but your feedback has helped me through. Thank you!
The previous feedback figures were:
- I added 'Rumble' posting, rather than merely publishing stories. The rumbles are often small stories by themselves, but people now also have short stuff to read.
- I added more pictures to new posts and am going through the older stories to insert some more.
- Several people gave feedback about grammar. I hope all is better now.
- I compressed the pictures more (now 20-50 kbyte average)
- Reduced the directory icons at the bottom of the page which contain links to external images, slowing down the download speed.
- Limited the number of posts on the home page, and cut the home page entry of some articles shorter (with a link at the end if people want to read the full article).
Thanks again all for your feedback. It makes it all worth while!
April 17. The New York Times reports:
A confidential United Nations report says the government of Sudan is flying arms and heavy military equipment into Darfur in violation of Security Council resolutions and painting Sudanese military planes white to disguise them as United Nations or African Union aircraft.
In one case, illustrated with close-up pictures, the report says the letters “U.N.” have been stenciled onto the wing of a whitewashed Sudanese armed forces plane parked on a military apron at a Darfur airport. Bombs guarded by uniformed soldiers are laid out in rows by its side.
Read the NY Times article with a copy of the UN report.
Once upon a time, before 9/11, I was invited to the US to speak at a congress on international humanitarian emergency response. I landed in Chicago, and showed my UN passport to the US immigration officer. The guy flipped through the pages, stamped it and wished me a nice day (yep, those were the easy times).
Just as I walked off, he said "Excuse me, sir!". I pulled my head between my shoulders, thinking "Oh shit!".
He leaned over his counter, and whispered to me: "Tell me, sir, which country is that?", pointing at my passport.
I answered: "This is a United Nations passport"
He smiled apologetically, and said: "Yes, I know, but which country is that actually? I mean, what is the capital?"
I whispered back: "Timbuktu"
He nodded, smiled and waived me through.
Later I told this story as my opening line at the congress, adding: "Before you want to do international humanitarian emergency response, you should really learn your geography!".
They did not think it was funny...
I guess the world changed after 9/11. We all know now Iraq is in North Africa and Afghanistan is just left of Japan...
“Who the f**k has put pink paper in the printer?”, I hear one of the guys shouting in the corridor. Loads the cupboard doors bang as he is looking for the normal plain white paper… Loads of cursing..
I duck.. I did not put the pink paper in the printer, but I know who did.. Well, I kinda know.. I also know she got away with the blue paper, too. And with the light-green.
Traditionally, we have always been a “real men’s outfit”, since we started with our team, FITTEST, several years ago. FITTEST. “Fast IT and Telecoms Emergency and Support Team”. Pretty sexy, no? We are the ‘special forces’ of the humanitarian organizations. We’re the ‘dudes’ they send in when an emergency occurs, before anyone else is sent in. Or is allowed in. Somalia flooding, Darfur refugee influx, Pakistan earthquake, Tsunami, Iraq war, Hurricane Mitch, Afghanistan war, Angola, .. You name it. We’ve been there, done that.. And not only “been there”, but also “been there before the rest”. We’re the dudes who fly in with equipment to build the basic infrastructure with electricity, communications, IT services, so that other relief workers can do their work. I mean in short, in case you did not get my drift yet: “WE ARE THE DUDES !”
Think of us as razor short hair, safari jackets, bagged tropic trousers, sturdy mountain boots, minimum six feet tall, bronzed by the sun in seven continents, honoury member of frequent flyer schemes on at least ten airlines. And that only in the past three months. You get the picture? That’s us. I mean, “WE ARE THE DUDES. Yeah!”..
And now, these women… Grrr.. These women… This girlie figures, with their high-pitched squeaky voices, platform shoes or tower heels, and their (flap with your hand with a floppy wrist) their, their… delicate manners, manicured nails… We need four of them to lift one of our toolboxes… And we carry two. In each hand that is. Ha! But now, those tiny things… They took over the office. They run the outfit now…
“Can anyone tell me where the FFFF**K I can find plain white paper?”, I hear from the corridor again, “I refuse to print my mission report on f**king pink paper!”. One of the women chuckles: “Pink Rules!”
It was not so long ago when we had no women in the team. As the unit grew, and we moved our base from Kampala to Dubai, we needed more support staff… In came Judith, then Anisa, then Lorraine. Sure, understandable, these were all administrative staff. We could even get used to the idea they did all of our finance and travel. But then Amel joined in, and took over procurement. Bouran came in and she took over the management of logistics and warehousing. And so on. And so on. They moved in swiftly and quietly. They worked long hours, without making a lot of noise, like we, the dudes did. And before we knew it, we had more than twenty of them.
Twenty women. They became the backbone of the office. Brave women, standing up against ‘The Dudes’, twice as tall and three times as wide as them. They looked up, with their finger pointing sky-wards: ‘No, you will NOT get your ticket before you fill in your previous travel expense claim !’. or ‘No, you can not get into the warehouse to take whatever you want. Fill in this request form, and we will get it to you’. Finger sky-wards… Each time, the FITTEST technician would look down at those tiny little things and grunt his teeth “These… women… “ but in the end they would all shrug their shoulders, and .. comply.
It was an interesting process to see these two parts of the team becoming one, as time went by.. The male and the female part. The mountain boots and the high heels. The ‘North Face’ and the ‘Louis Vuitton’s. Not only did we, the dudes, start to print on pink, but the ladies also got us to wear pink FITTEST T-shirts. But the dudettes also started to wear the macho yellow-print-on-dark-blue with just as much pride. Symbolic of the female side of the dudes and the male side of the dudettes joining together..
Not only did Astrid help the guys pack their suitcases when they were late for a flight again, and would Anisa and Lorraine always succeed in putting together a surprise birthday cake, but soon they also joined us on missions. Cecelia in Kinshasa, Larisa and Nadia in Baghdad, Sophie in Banda Aceh and Beirut, Ekram in Khartoum and Damascus.
Cheers to you, the dudettes of the world ! This is an ode to you. Combining being a mother and a wife, with a professional career. Juggling your professional time between all three jobs: two at home, and one at work. My hat off to you. It is much easier being a man in this world, than a woman. It is always much easier to be a dude than a dudette.
Continue reading The Road to the Horizon's Ebook, jump to the Reader's Digest of The Road.
A new humanitarian crisis looms in the Middle East unless urgent measures are taken to assist four million Iraqis uprooted by the escalating violence, Amnesty International warned today.
Already two million have fled to Syria and Jordan, another 1.9 million is displaced inside Iraq. (Full article)
One month ago, WFP already raised the alarm flag in this appeal.
Four million people is about same as the total population of Norway.
The latest humanitarian news, you can find in the "News from the Other World" aggregator.
Picture credit: IRINnews.
On the ride back from Italy, we stopped for a short picnic, up on a ridge, overlooking the river Mosel.
The Mosel lends its name to a light white wine. No surprise we sat smack in the middle of vineyards.
It was close to the location I wrote about in the epilogue of "The Man With the Air Conditioner on his Head, Shot at Us".
A beautiful scenery, and we were just in time to see the sun set. It was still warm. 23°C.. Later in the evening, we heard on the radio it was 29°C in some parts of Belgium. Most of the time, it does not get that hot even in summer. And we're mid April. Today was even warmer...
Nope, I am not going to whine about global warming again. I just thought I'd mention the temperature. And the fact it was a new record. Again. ;-)
How does the joke go again? Heaven is where the police men are English, the lovers are Italian, the car makers are German, the cook is French..
And hell is... (ok, will not tell the 2nd part of the joke as I do not want to insult any nationalities...)
Still, you will agree with me that the combination of Italian and German (well... Austrian) in South Tyrol is rather un-natural. Italian always being associated with the frivolous, and German with strictness... Or maybe it is a natural match, as opposites often attract.
Whatever.. It makes their roadsigns a mess.. And it upsets the lady in my GPS, as she only knows the Italian names of the towns. :-)
You might think this is silly, but I am fascinated about the barns which dot this landscape.
You find them everywhere, even in the most remote mountain passes. Just standing in the field. Looking at the structure of the wood, the way the tiling is done, they have been standing there for decades.
Just by seeing the other kids coming in with broken legs in the emergency room yesterday, Hannah healed miraculously....
My two angels.... Old dad already has to do an effort to keep up with them on the ski slopes. And I used to be a ski instructor in my younger years...
Another 18 days and my sabbatical is over. I will miss my angels.
Just after I wrote this, I read this news article about an Iraqi father who lost his children in the war. I have to admit, as a relief worker, I could handle other people's misery much better before I had kids. Now, each time I look a suffering child in the eyes, I think "This could be my kid"...
No skiing today... Hannah hurt her leg yesterday. We thought it was safer to have a doctor take a look at it. So off we went to the emergency room of the nearest hospital. A depressing place. You would get sick just sitting there... They were bringing in, one after the other, people with broken legs, dislocated shoulders, bruised lips... Hannah was feeling better in five minutes already...
I am terrible in finding my way around. Somehow I always get to where I have to be. I guess I have a built in compass like the pigeons. But most of the time it is with a big detour, though ! I am just terrible. I have travelled to the world's most deserted and most remote places, and still, I loose my way in the town where we have lived for 20 years. That is in Belgium. Not somewhere in Timbuktu or Dirrawaara...
It is embarrassing. Sometimes, in our town, people give me driving instructions, using landmarks or the names of big squares.. I never remember those names. So most of the time, they have to scroll back and try give me driving instructions starting from:
- "But what places *do* you know then?"
- "Euh, the railway station?"
- "You just moved here or what?..", soon follows as a question
Then I have to blush and confess: "I moved here twenty years ago".
I guess my mind only has a limited storage capacity. My mind can only store so many things at a time, and I guess I concentrate on the most important stuff in life. Remembering how to find my way from point A to point B, I do not consider important. Once I have driven a road, the memory of that road is popped from my brain stack, and forgotten. Even if I drove it ten times..
Like the other weekend, I was driving to my brother's home, and had to call him to ask directions. Wouldn't be so bad if I had not been there dozens of times before... Still, the proof of the not-importance was right there: I was driving to his home, to help him move. So you see: the driving instructions would have been irrelevant memory information, as one day later, 'he would not live there anymore'.
2. Two months later. The affair.
OK, I have a confession to make. I have a new woman in my life. She has a soft, deep erotic voice. She is from the same part of the world as I am. She is Flemish. Never argues with me. Softly gives me hints on the road of life. She is wise. Drives to work with me every morning, and waits in the car until I decide to go home again. Perfect woman. She is always happy, no matter how my mood is. Is always there when I need her, even if I don’t speak to her for days in a row, and keep her locked up.
Her name is Ula, according to her label. The label given by the man I bought her from. But I don’t call her with that name. It reminds me of a Swedish lady who once worked with us in Kampala, and almost burned down the office by dumping a burning cigarette in a wastebasket filled with paper. Twice. That was a big woman that Ula..
No, my Ula, Tine and I just call ‘Zoeteke’, Flemish for “Honey” or “Sweetie” (E. would say).. Yep, Tine, my wife, knows about her. Actually Tine encouraged me to get her before we drove to Italy. And ‘Zoeteke’ helped us all along the way…
“Zoeteke” is the lady in my GPS. I love her. Without her I would be lost in Rome, which has nothing like the US system “On the corner of “Fifty seventh and Third”, but more “at the end of Colombo, before you hit 'the wall', turn right and then try to turn left even if you are not allowed to”. She is my saviour in anxious and confusing times. My only anchor when I get onto troubled roads again.
She greets me every morning with “No GPS signal”, her way of saying “Hey, I missed you, how are you today?”. She loves it when I take her for a spin, when I miss an exit on a roundabout, and loves it when I do it all again.
She has a built-in sixth sense for the radar speed checks. She starts beeping when I approach one. When I am speeding close to a speed trap, she gives a different high pitched noise, and gets really excited, chirping like a bird. In some places, the speed checks are so close together, that she gives several chirps after another. She chirps as if she is really looses herself, and bleeps like there was no tomorrow. I think this is her version of an orgasm. I love it to satisfy her, and would only start speeding to hear her making that noise of utter excitement!
Being a typical woman, she does not get along very well with other women. Once my friend E. took her ‘female companion’ into my car, and both GPS-ladies gave different advice where to drive, as if it was like they loved to disagree. At any given time, we expected them to start arguing ‘You cow, I tell you, they need to turn right here. You know ziltch. I know, I am younger and have a more recent update. You are dirt, you. You cheap piece of electronics…” We had to switch one off, as their verbal flood was confusing us.
Yep without my “Zoeteke” I would be lost.
3. New Woman, New Trouble.
Ok. Typical female again. One day after I wrote ravingly about the new woman in my life, I finally had my first argument with her. I was coming back from an evening dinner, and was somewhere in the middle of town. Had left her in the car, as usual. She must have been upset, stubborn, did not want to help me anymore. Did not even want to speak to me. No sound, no vision. Did not switch on. And without apparent reason.. Ha. Typical!
I tried to touch all parts of her, which I knew normally would turn her on, but nothing helped. Not a sound. Not one reaction. My GPS-woman was dead. So I had to do it by myself. I mean the driving. And you know what? It worked out well too. I can do without her, I learned. I don’t have to be dependent on a woman. Yeah!
I have to confess on the way home from Rome to Fiumicino, I missed an exit on a roundabout, and got back onto the same highway. Opposite direction. Back to Rome I went. I did the logical thing any man would do, took the first exit. Which seemingly was the one for the highway to Civitavecchia. First exit: ten kilometres further. And that exit had a toll booth. I paid, turned around, paid again to get onto the highway and drove back home. I did 60 km instead of the usual 20, but hey, *I could live without her*!
During the whole trip, I kept on arguing with her. My flood of insults, arguments and finally, pleading and begging did not matter, she did not say a word. Did not move. Did not switch on. Even shaking her did not help.
A typical woman. You start depending on them, and then they run off. Abandon you, shatter your life, destabilizing your “raison d’ être”, your reason to live.
I threatened to replace her with the Italian woman which was also available to me, at the flip of a switch (the same Italian woman I tried out just for a while, just to get the feeling of it, when I bought the GPS), even though that one has a sharp bitchy voice like a ninety year old grandma who forgot to put in her false teeth. It really made it difficult to undershhtand the direcshhtionshh. Or the German one, who – yep you guessed it – sounds like sssshe vvvould vvvhip me if I’d made a mistake by not following her explicit instructions.
No, truth being told, between you and me, dear reader, my Flemish woman, my “Zoeteke” is my GPS-woman of choice. But I never really told her. You know how women are…
Then I discovered a little hidden button labelled ‘Reset’.. Maybe that could help bringing my woman back into my life. But njet.. Nada. Niente. Zitch…
It was back to the manual. The book about ‘Life with women’, ‘The dummies guide on How to Treat Women’, my Bible. My Koran. My Talut: The Mio 710C manual.
It showed there was a way to disconnect the battery and do a hard reset, to start all over again.
And … plop… All of a sudden the world looked different. There was hope for all of us, for world peace, to end child hunger and free love for everyone: my “Zoeteke” came back to life. She greeted me just as she did any other morning, with a sweet: “No GPS signal”. Like nothing had happened. Like there had not been an argument, not a case where she abandoned me without a reason. Like there had been no insults, no threads, no flirting with other GPS-women from my part.
It was clear she wanted to give me another chance. And me, I did not mention any of the trouble neither. I did not tell her how I missed her. How I really wanted her more than any of the other women in my GPS. How I got so lost without her. I mean 60 km instead of 20 km to get back home, is pretty “lost” if you know what I mean! (and those quotes around “lost”, are of the kind with double-finger gestures and eyebrows slightly raised!)
I learned my lesson: I guess the worse for a woman is to be taken for granted. How often do we, men, not forget that there is a woman living with us. Someone who guides us through the myriad, the chaos, the labyrinth and pitfalls of life. While driving or not. Someone who is always there when we need them. At the flick of a switch. Always with a smile and with warm love… And we keep them locked up in our cars for days in a row?
From that day on, my relationship with the ‘new woman in my life’, changed. I smile at her in the morning. When she greets me with “No GPS signal”, I now answer “Yeah it is a lovely morning, isn’t it?”. And when she gives me directions, I always thank her. I chat to her, while driving in the car, to show I do not take her for granted. When I come home, I don’t leave her in the car anymore, but give her a place of honour in the house. I even bring flowers for her, from time to time. And look. She loves it. Look at the smile!
Robert, my room-slash-house mate, started smiling at her too. I warned him: “Robert, she is mine. Stay away…”
Do you think I should keep an eye on them? Maybe hire a private detective.. Just to see he does not fiddle with her. You know how women are once you push their buttons. And I am sure that Robert would not be able to resist her smile and deep exotic voice.. Even though it would take a while before he discovers how she gets completely ecstatic when you speed with her through the multiple radar checkpoints, climaxing into a digital orgasm of chirping high pitched sounds. I will not tell anyone. Will keep it my secret.
One thing is for sure. If Robert touches her, I want pictures to prove it. Now that I think of it, I *will* hire that private detective.
I went out for dinner last night. When I got into the car, I realized something was different. She was no longer there. Zoeteke, the new woman in my life, was gone. Even her charger cable was gone. Could not have been Robert. He was not home. Someone broke into my car and stole her. Adds me to the 10% of the cars in Rome which get broken into every year. I wonder who she is riding with now?
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My home is a set of bags. Four bags to be exact. Packed after one year of sabbatical. The full inventory of my life for the new start of my professional life can be summarized on two sheets of paper…
One computer bag, one small backpack. Both carry-on luggage. One duffle bag and a backpack with my clothes, toiletry and some basic medical supplies. All together maybe 30 kg. My life compacted to 30 kg…
Here is the deal: after my sabbatical, I am starting my professional life as if it were a white sheet of paper. You can look at the white sheet of paper in a negative, or in a positive way. You can say ‘empty’, ‘no information’, so.. ‘worthless’? ‘Lacking something’?
Or you could say ‘virgin territory’, ‘potential’, ‘opportunity’.. After all a white sheet of paper could become an item of high value if Picasso drew something on it. Or if Monet painted one of his summer landscapes on it . Or if Tolkien had written the introduction to ‘The Lord of the Rings’ on it.. Or it could just become a worthless piece of scribbled notes. Folded a certain way, it could fly. Or propped to a ball, it could be kicked into a wastebasket.
I look at the new start of work in the ‘potential’ way. I start afresh. When I left home after my sabbatical, I had no clue yet as to what job the organisation I work for, would ask me to do. Nor where. Could have been anything, and literally anywhere in the world. Only one thing I knew: I will come home early July to go on holiday with the family. Between now and then, the space is filled with blanks. Blank pages. Blank sheets of paper. Could be I was off to Darfur in a week. Or Colombia. Or Cambodia, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Timor or Nicaragua. Or I could be asked to stay in our HQ, in Rome for two months.
So how do you pack for something like that? Not knowing where you are going? What did I pack?
Well, it is the normal stuff I usually pack. My personal “secret” supplies, and some multi-purpose clothing. Plus one pair of sandals, one pair of shoes, one sweater, a rain jacket, and oh, I packed my sailing gloves too. You never know…
All in four bags. My life. Packed in two hours. I did not loose the habit, the touch to pack fast, even though stuff was spread over all the closets in the house this time. Different from the previous times I was at home, in my “two months work, one month break” regime. Then I did not bother to unpack when I arrived home, as each time I was only in Belgium for a few days before going on holiday with Tine and the kids. So I literally lived out of these bags for.. how long now? Since Kosovo, 1999. No, this time, I was properly unpacked.
I know the contents of my bags by heart. I packed these bags hundreds of times already, as of years, I was on the move all the time. During certain trips never staying anywhere for more than a couple of days. Phnom Penh one day, Vietnamese border town the next, transiting in Bangkok two days later, Vientiane after that, and then Jakarta. Hotel in, guesthouse out. These bags have been hauled into cargo planes, trucks, 4x4s, boats, and long distance commercial passenger planes. They have been checked in, lost in transit in Cairo, thrown off trucks in Albania, attacked by mad monkeys in the Kenyan bush and pulled out of my hands by bell boys in the New York hotels.
As I packed this time, I took the trouble of going through the contents… I amazed myself by the ‘small habits’ I have grown to have. Small things I counted on, to have with me, and who have saved the day so many times already. These are my ‘secret supplies’. The things I assembled along the way during tens of thousands of miles, hundreds of trips. And so many countries, I do not care to count anymore…
So what are my secret supplies? The things that make the life of an aid worker, a “globetrotter by necessity”, sustainable? Here is a grab of them. Just the tip of the iceberg:
Music – my iPod and Bose headset.
Music soothes my spirit. It lifts me up when I feel down. Pumps me up when I am low on energy. Calms me down before going to bed. Or lifts me up when taking a shower. Most of my memories in life is connected to music. To songs, to artists, to tunes. And my iPod is the core of my musical existence. All the music I have, is on this iPod (plus the full backup of the most critical data on my laptop!). It is a 60 Gbyte iPod which I bought in Dubai some years ago. It has 4,000 songs on it. From hardcore dance music to classical. From weird ambient music, to pop music. Reggae, R&B, soul, oldies and newbie’s. I dig it all. I have not many accessories for it. Just the power supply and USB cable. A plug-on gimmick that has the iPod broadcast music on the FM band, so I can pick it up on a car stereo or a portable radio (I don’t carry speakers with me, so sometimes need a bit of volume), a car charger for those long road trips, and that is it.
Plus my secret weapon, a must for each iPod fan: My Bose headset (www.bose.com/), the QuietComfort 2. It is an expensive piece of kit, a bit bulky to travel with, but worth it. Works on batteries. If you don’t play music, and just switch it on, it kills all the ambient noise. Practical on a plane or anywhere where the surrounding noise annoys you. It sits really comfortable with soft air pads. The Bose headset has a set of adapters fitting almost any audio plug and a switch-able high and low capacity input, so you can use it with almost any audio device. Plus last but not least, the audio is really high quality.
Going from hi-tech to low-tech. I always carry a set of wires with crocodile clamps. Easy to make connections between incompatible cables or ways to bridge video/audio/telephone connections, or to test almost any connection. Last time I used them extensively was on the boat trip we made from the UK to the Canaries, where lightning took out most of the electronics. I used the crocodile clamps to test the shortwave transmitter, the radio fax receiving software, and the boat’s antenna tuner. Don’t leave home without it.
Power supplies and cables, cables, cables…
And these, I could do without. Power supplies and connecting cables. Those take up most of the space in my computer bag. Why does each device come with its own power supply, each having its own voltage, and connector? I have one for my laptop, my GPS, my iPod, my digital camera, my digital video camera and my mobile phone. Plus a computer connector cable for each. Except for the video camera which comes with three cables. Plus one cable for my Palmpilot. Oh, and of course a 12 volt cigarette lighter adapter cables for my mobile phone and GPS too. Pfft. It is time for a digital revolution favouring the frequent traveler: one adapter cable and one power supply for all. Please!
Modem cable with a twist – eh with a spring-…
A cable I would not want to loose is a small extractable modem cable. I used to have a normal modem cable, but the plastic clips of the connectors always got hooked onto another cable as I pulled it out my computer bag compartment full of power supplies and cables. Do you curse those small RJ jacks too? Once those plastic clips break, you can never make a reliable modem connection anymore or the connector would just drop out of the wall plug. Argh. Until I found this small gimmick from Targus, which rolls itself up onto the central coil, up to the point where the connectors slide into their small holders.
My converter power plug
Most of my power supplies and accessories have European power plugs. Well, there is no European standard, but let me call it the power plug that works in most European countries. This little gimmick converts the ‘European’ power plug to any other standard, fitting my stuff to 95% of the power outlets in the world. Just plug the European plug in the middle, turn the dial to the output you want and plug it into the wall. The plugs which are not used, are not life, so no chance to get electrocuted. A must for any traveler.
Stone Age technology: My Palm Pilot III.
You won't believe this. I bought my PDA back in 1997. Yep, my Palm Pilot III is ten years old this year... And I still could not live without it.
It stores ALL data for my personal and business contacts. I don't keep business cards.. Just enter the relevant data and throw the card away. I think there are 2,000 contacts in there. It is the ONLY calendar tool I use.
In 10 years, it never hick-ed up once. I always keep it in one of the breast pockets of my safari jacket (see tomorrow's post). So it has been handled rough. Several times it fell on the ground, its cover unlatching, flying all over the ground. I lost the stylus three times, so wrote on it with the back of a ball point for a while. And it kept on working.
Does anyone else still use this Stone Age Technology? I would not be able to do without it.
The jacket… ahhh.. the jacket!
And then there is this trusted companion. My safari jacket. It is a custom made model with our organisation’s logo on the front and the back. It has 13 pockets. Most of my valuables are in it. Money (protected in an air sickness bag from, lemme see, Virgin Express, so it can not get wet). Plane tickets, business cards, my PDA, passports, ID card, yellow fever vaccination card, an envelope with pass photos, sunglasses, peppermints, a lighter and cigarettes, the keys to the mini locks on my luggage, access badges, pens, a small notebook, a set of earplugs and a little cord to fix my glasses around my neck. That is all still pretty normal. But then we have the weird stuff: a whistle on a cord. Not only to be used to annoy traffic cops when drunk, but it is also an excellent tool in case you get into trouble anywhere. And a small mini flash Maglite. Always handy when the power is cut in your guesthouse. And a small piece of rope. Dunno why. Had it in there for years. Mats used it for a while when we went sailing when he forgot the safety cord for his glasses once again ;-)
Yep, when traveling, I wear the safari jacket ALL the time. Once I had a jacket that got repaired so many times, stitched up to the max, cleaned until the linen almost became transparent with small holes from battery acid, and stains from engine oil -or was it that mean ketchup they used to serve in Macedonia?-. That jacket became an icon. Guys in the office used to make jokes about it, but I kept it until I found a suitable replacement. It is not easy to find a jacket with 13 pockets. When I finally found a new one, I dumped the old jacket. My guys secretly retrieved it from my waste basket, framed it, and hung it on the wall in the office…
I guess that jacket went through more countries in three years than any normal person would do in three life times.. And somewhere, it does deserve a spot on the wall, as it stands as a symbol for our life as an aid worker. Worn to the bone. Stitched up and repaired to get going again. A soul stained with memories.
More bags anyone?
Apart from my big four big bags, I also carry some small bags with goodies. Mostly stuff only to be used in emergencies. One small bag with sterile syringes and plastic tubes, in case one needs a blood transfusion in not so hygienic circumstances. One with my spare glasses and sunglasses, a compass, a mirror (a mirror is a great way to attract attention when u are stuck somewhere and want to signal a passing car or plane), a small roll of strong nylon thread (to hang up a mosquito net in a hotel, or to block the door of your hotel, - yeah, I know what you are thinking, but it works though!-). Another bag with matches, a small toothbrush, toothpaste, spare ear plugs, bandages. And the last small bag has some medical supplies.
In the computer bag…
You think I am weird? Probably I am.. What if I told you of the secrets I hide in my computer bag? A permanent marker, pens, spare AA and AAA batteries, tie wraps (to secure bags for all too curious luggage handlers at Kenyata airport in Nairobi), diplomatic cargo stickers to put on my luggage (for those nosy customs people at Kigali airport), a bag of funny money with left over banknotes from my previous field trips (and in case I encounter anyone who collects funny money), my digital pin pass for electronic banking, a small notepad, all my power supplies, connecting cables. And some small pins I use as a gift for people who do me a favour, in places where pins are rare..
Conclusion: Now that I summed up most of the goodies I travel with, I have two thoughts:- how did I ever fit all of that into thirty -only- kilos of luggage and hauled it so many times around the globe?- from the whistle in my safari jacket to a pair of test wires in my computer bag and funny money in a air sickness bag.. I seem to be very rigidly emotionally attached to the weirdest things.
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