Friday, December 30, 2011

Down and out in Stratford

October 12, 2011
Stratford, London

As my surroundings in Paris had taken a somewhat Gone With the Wind-esque flavor, it seemed only fitting that my illusion of being in the deep south should spill over into real life.

In the movie, right after Scarlet O’Hara kills a northern soldier, she says, “I’ll think about that tomorrah.”

In real life, I had told myself this very thing about my return to London to gather the rest of my possessions. And now “tomorrah” was staring me in the face.

The last few days had been…eventful. Now, I was alone, lying in bed, staring up at the ceiling of the dingy apartment that less than a month prior I had thought would be my new home. I was due back in Paris the next day, but I could barely walk (thanks to a mysteriously sprained ankle), my luggage outweighed me, and this was only one corner of the jigsaw puzzle disguised as my life that I needed to sort out. What can I say? I had risked it all. What was it that my friend James had said while I was in Seattle? Something like: “Ah, your heart has been scooped out with a dull spoon and plopped on the table.” Yeah, that was about right. My heart was mush. But there was something else there, too. Lying in the dim light I let the weight of my situation settle around me. Surprisingly, I didn’t cry or wallow. From deep down one thought filtered above all the others:

I’m not going out like this.

I'm not leaving London on this note—I’m going to bury these memories and make new ones that will eclipse everything the last 10 months has brought.

I thought back on all my travels and the memories of the people I had met, what I had experienced and learned along the way. I had tucked these away in my mind and now began to retrieve them one by one like pulling out old boxes from an attic. But, instead of being dusty and grim, they were like bright, shiny, precious jewels. No matter how heavy my luggage is, how heavy my heart; these memories carry no weight.

As I took inventory of my life, I thought about my trip to San Francisco, the one I took a couple weeks before moving abroad over 3 ½ years ago. Right before I left, I had expressed my anxiety about not knowing what was ahead to my friend, Boogie, who I had met years earlier on a plane headed for Boston. He had shaken his head, raised his pint of beer towards me and said simply: “You’re the flame, darling…we’re the moths.”

The corners of my mouth curved slightly at this recollection.

Well, flame fucking ON! Helloooo, London...

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Euh, excusez-moi????

Oct 6, 2011
Paris, France

The stress over the past few months has taken its toll and I now have an eye inflammation that requires the talents of an ophthalmologist. Fortunately, this isn’t the first time I’ve had to go to the eye doctor in Paris so I know the drill. Left unchecked, however, this small inflammation has the potential of becoming quite severe, as history can attest:

So, I’m taking myself to the American Hospital of Paris as they’re one of the few places that will see me right away. Of course, it comes with a high price tag from a French point of view, but compared to my lack of medical coverage in the US, it’s actually quite affordable. Yes, I’m still living in that void between countries, where I have no rights in my own because I’m not present and no rights in the place I reside because a mountain of paperwork and red tape stand between me and basic social programs.

Nevertheless, I was feeling pretty good about the ease in which I managed the appointment and saw the same doctor as before. He remembered me.

He did a quick perusal of the situation with his microscope and began to give me his diagnosis in French.

Now, when you’re not fluent in a language every interaction is a rapid-fire game of deduction. You don’t catch every word, so you have to extrapolate meaning from a limited vocabulary.

Take for example the following sentence meant to provide instruction. Someone might say:
“Try to feed the dog late in the evening because that way you don’t have to get up quite so early to take him for a walk, although even then he might have an accident...oh, but if that happens, don’t worry.”

In a foreign language, from a sentence comprised of 42 words, you might pick out only 8:
“feed” “dog” “evening” “early” “walk” “accident” “don’t worry”

In the absence of more data, your mind immediately tries to fill in the blanks like a madlib exercise on crack.

Okay let’s see….

I need to feed the dog, that’s clear, but when…probably the evening or is it DON’T feed the dog in the evening because he’ll have an accident? I also need to walk the dog, but are they telling me that I should walk the dog in the evening after feeding or do I get up early and do it or is it BOTH? What does the “don’t worry” part refer to again??? Can’t be about not feeding the dog, so it must be about the walking of the dog, but that can’t be right…this is where the reference to an accident makes sense...Ah…fuck it! The dog must eat, the dog must walk, if there’s an accident I’ll clean it up. Whew, glad that’s over…now just nod, smile and all is good.

That's 42 words distilled down to 8, creating an inner dialog of 130. No wonder my head hurts so often in France!

Meanwhile, back at the doctor’s office...

My mind is racing, trying to follow the doctor’s words, fill in the blanks, translate and differentiate between the pieces of information that are meant to educate me about what’s going on versus actions that I must take to get better. I’m nodding attentively, the doctor completely unaware of the fireworks going on inside my brain as the synapses struggle to make the connections fast enough to catch up to where the conversation is actually at. I’m falling behind quickly, he’s talking very fast, but if I stop to think about how to tell him to slow down, I’ll easily miss the next few sentences. It’s a bit like the adults talking in the Peanuts comic strip. It’s “whah, whah, whah, whah…” (but with a French accent). From the words I know, I pick out and try to make sense of what’s going on. Suddenly, 3 words stand out and grind everything happening in my head to a halt.

“whah, whah, whah, whah….couper ton oeil…whah whah..whah..c’est ca,” he says, smiles, stops and looks at me expectantly.

I blink and stare at him, a few seconds of awkward silence transpire as my brain catches up to my ears and sends out a red flag with three words written on it “couper ton oeil!” “couper ton oeil!” it waves. On the other side of the flag my brain has helpfully provided a call to action in English: “Quit blinking like an idiot, he just told you he is going to cut your eye.”

Okay, enough’s enough, it’s all fun and games until someone says “couper ton oeil!" This French lesson has now come to an end. “Euh….et en anglais s’il vous plais?”

“Oh,” he smiles again and chuckles slightly and begins to explain to me that indeed the only way to address the issue is with surgery and tells me he has next Wednesday available.

I ask him what the recovery time is for something like this.

“Bah…I don’t know, it depends on how much it bleeds.”


He describes the procedure, which involves me completely awake as they inject a needle directly into my eyeball.

“Well, it will be so close that you won’t be able to focus on it,” he confides to me.

I leave the office a bit shell-shocked. Uh, seriously? On top of everything else, I'll be sans an eye? I try to imagine for a second being a photographer with a patch…merde.

Monday, November 07, 2011

My New Roommate?

October 5, 2011
Paris, France

Is this my new roommate or a physical manifestation of my emotional state?

Of all the apartments in Paris…really? I end up sleeping next to a giant scary Gumby?

The other disturbing thing about this apartment, besides the spider that Barbara and I battled (and lost, mainly due to my scream of terror as she was trying to kill it…), was what was in the bathroom: Sean Penn’s head as a toilet paper holder. I stare at this as I go pee, at a loss, thinking back to that fateful night in Haiti, the expression on his face then was not too dissimilar. But, that is another story altogether and one that I’m not at liberty to discuss.

For the last few days I have woken up, not only NOT knowing what apartment I’m in, but not even being able to identify which country.

I’ve slept in 11 different places in the last 2 weeks and have hauled my luggage back and forth across multiple cities and 4 different countries. Normally, this level of movement and travel wouldn’t bother me, but this time I hadn’t signed up for it. I am utterly exhausted in every possible way and the idea of making decisions about my life has left me head-in-my-hands sobbing on Barbara’s couch for several minutes today. Every aspect has been tossed up in the air and instead of coming back down so I can DO something, it’s as if they are all suspended in mid-air keeping me in limbo forcing me to only exist in the present. Being in the moment is one thing, but not when the present utterly sucks.

Tomorrow I move to yet another new place: Savannah. At least, that’s what I refer to Brian’s apartment as. It’s a beautiful Parisian flat on the 6th floor in the 18th not far from Montemarte.

With its pale blue walls, antiques, tall bookcases, dark blue velvet curtains, ceiling fans, and collection of decanters; I'm reminded of the deep south and I suddenly have an overwhelming desire to watch Gone With the Wind and have a mint julep.

However, looking out the window shreds any imagination that I'm actually in the US, as the silhouette of countless chimneys against a rose-colored sky is quintessentially Paris.

The logistics relating to the apartment hopping have become infinitely more complicated thanks to several unwanted “guests” found at Joe and Gerhard’s, known in the scientific community as Cimex lectularius. Now on top of having my possessions spread between 3 countries and probably 6 or 7 flats, most of my clothes that I’ve been traveling with have been quarantined as the exterminators fumigate. Additionally, Brian’s friend who was holding the keys to his apartment has been unexpectedly hospitalized, which has kept him (and the keys) M.I.A. for close to a week.

So here I am, stuck between a scary Gumby and even scarier Sean Penn. How did this happen? How did it come to this? Well, I can’t even begin to write about all the twists and turns and ups and downs my life has taken. All I can say is that I couldn’t have gotten by without A LOT of help from my family and friends. You know who you are; in fact, you’re probably reading this blog. Thank you for making me laugh, letting me cry, protecting me from the elements, helping me move my shit over and over, forcing me to eat, and providing loads of free alcohol.

I started this blog about 5 years ago and have gone through long periods of time where I haven’t updated it, either because of lack of time, inspiration, or, in some cases, lack of electricity. It began because I wanted to keep everyone back home updated and be able to chronicle my adventures/misadventures while pursuing a career in photojournalism and laugh at the unexpected that's cropped up along the way. Maybe this is my version of self-therapy, who knows....but I definitely believe that life is much more enjoyable when you don't take yourself too seriously.

Lately my life has been so unpredictable and complicated that I feel like I’m no longer in the driver’s seat and all I can do is sit back and see what unfolds. So, if you’re reading this and you want to come along for the ride, saddle up. Keep in mind: I have no fucking clue what I’m doing. So it begins…(again).

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Need to Know Situation

February 19, 2010

It quickly becomes evident that getting our bearings here in Haiti requires more than a map and a sense of direction. The sensory overload that had overtaken us upon first arrival has somewhat subsided and in its wake has left us with the monumental task of figuring out how to get anything done in this country. How do two girls, trying to help a small non-profit, navigate through this massive disaster?

Our initial focus is to help individuals and families that have been displaced and living in tent cities surrounding the NGO’s facility. First task was to figure out who was not receiving aid already.

My biggest fear is to have our good intentions result in repercussions or unrealistic expectations that could lead to misunderstandings, distrust, and eventually bitterness. Many of these people had been promised help, but it had never arrived.

We needed to acquire information—fast.

Our driver, translator, and overall go-to guy is Cajuste, a local Haitian who has been working for the People In Need Partnership since its inception as the on-site Program Director. His home was located on a hillside, a neighborhood called Morne Lazare, which was decimated during the earthquake. He was lucky, he and his family survived, but his wife and 1 ½ year old daughter were among those who fled Port-au-Prince and are seeking shelter in the countryside some 200km away. After the earthquake they wanted to be as far away from buildings as possible and even though they are away from the immediate chaos, they are still living in a makeshift tent.
Cajuste takes us on a tour of the various tent cities nearby. He slams on the breaks as we pass a large group of tents and points.

“50,000 people live here,” he says soberly. We peer into the tent city and can barely comprehend that figure. The next one we come to is significantly smaller, but still not small enough. We only have enough resources for maybe 200 people and we still have to figure out how to give out food without being mobbed. Every time we near a tent city people approach us and tell us they’re hungry.

On our way back to the office we pass a small lot with tents. Cajuste slows and looks at us and asks us if we want to stop. We nod.

As we approach the tent city people come to greet us—a young mother, an older man, kids flock around us. They tell us almost immediately that they do not have food. We wonder how this can be, from the camps we have seen; some of these have obviously received aid. The largest even have huge tanks of water, which are routinely refilled by large water trucks. But the people in this tent city tell us that the aid goes to the larger camps that are just down the road, completely bypassing them.

A quick count reveals that there are approximately 75-80 individuals living in this small lot, many are single mothers or single women. Holli and I look at each other, both thinking the same thing: we’ve found a tent city that we can actually help.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

35 Seconds that Changed Haiti Forever

February 18, 2010

From our first moments here we realize the devastation has not been exaggerated and only mildly documented. Everyday we take a new road and see different parts of the city that have crumbled. Pieces of everyday life have fallen together haphazardly and resemble the rubble that litters the street. In the 35 seconds that Haiti shook, many experienced catastrophic losses.

People are everywhere. Make-shift living quarters are everywhere. Everyone is on the move. Some are fleeing the city, some are salvaging their belongings, most are scrounging for food and shelter and others are selling whatever they can on the street.

It’s as if the entire city is homeless. In fact, with current homeless estimates coming in at 1.9 million, an entire city IS homeless. Take, for instance, Paris—inside the Peripherique (the highway that encircles the city limits) holds a population of roughly 2 million lives. Imagine the entire population of Paris suddenly living outside.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

After the Earthquake

February 17, 2010
Port-au-Prince, Delmas, Haiti

I was awoken again in the middle of the night, this time not by the rooster that doesn’t seem to know that it’s NOT morning, but by the silence that ensues when the electricity goes off and the fan, which was circulating air on and around me, suddenly quits. My eyes are open—I think. I can’t quite tell as the darkness here is absolute. I strain my eyes seeking an outline in the dark of the fan or the barred window suggesting a hint of the night sky—but nothing. It’s pitch black. I ponder this strange feeling of being suspended in darkness for a moment. It’s something you never think about. In much of the modern world people are surrounded by light. So much so that it’s impossible to shut it off. Street lights, a neighbor’s house, cars, shops…these are ever-present in our lives. Even shutting these out doesn’t prevent a stray clock display, a charging cell phone, or a computer from giving one’s night surroundings a gentle glow. But, here in Haiti, everything seems to be unplugged.

Without the circulating air courtesy of the fan, I am unprotected from the various bloodsucking insects that thrive in this tropical climate. Though I can’t see or even hear them, I can feel them touching down on my exposed skin for a snack. I cover up and suffer through the stifling heat and the sweat that begins to soak through the sheets. I’m barely able to go back to sleep, but there’s no other choice. When you have no electricity laying in the dark is preferable to sitting in the dark.

I long for morning. I toss and turn. I awake every hour to see if the veil of darkness over Haiti has been lifted. It has not.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

October 10, 2008: 5am, Dubai, U.A.E.

A thick haze of humidity shrouds the city of Dubai as the plane descends, so I can’t see a damn thing, but I don’t care, my main concern is retrieving my checked baggage quickly enough to make my connecting flight at the other terminal, which was a 15-20minute taxi ride away.

* * *
Made it, with a half hour to spare! Kabul here I come.

I was hoping to get a window seat so I could lean my head against it and perhaps get a little sleep—as the last time I engaged in this blessed activity was Tuesday evening and it was now Friday.

“Hello.” An older man with kind eyes greeted me as I sat down next to him. I didn’t particularly feel like conversing with anyone, but his warm greeting prevented me from being aloof, which is my normal M.O. on airplanes as there are few things worse than being strapped to a cramped seat with a conversation forced upon you.

I quickly learn that him and his wife have been living in California for close to 30 years, but are originally from Afghanistan and plan to be in the country for about a month. He shows me his American passport, the picture shows a man who’s wearing what looks to be a general’s uniform and identifies him as Said Opeyany.

“I live in San Francisco now,” he says.

“How long has it been since you last visited Afghanistan?” I ask.

“Oh, about four years. I expect there will be some people at the airport when I arrive,” the excitement of returning home showing on his face.

He asks me if I work for a NGO or the UN. When I tell him my plans, he nods with understanding. “I am an editor and founder of a magazine called ‘Marafat’.”

My eyebrows raise mentally, but the gears that started turning quickly stop as he mentions that it’s a religious magazine about faith and how to worship. Not a lot of room for my bomb squad in that…ah well.

We keep talking, and I learn that his wife, Fariba (sitting next to him), is a microbiologist. “You know, when we get to Kabul, there will be a celebration. I’m kind of a famous man in Afghanistan. I used to be a judge and I’m a candidate for a position here. Ah, you should join us! Come to lunch with us and have some authentic Afghani food and experience our hospitality.”

I thank him sincerely for the invitation, but how do I explain that I’ve spent the last 48+ hours in public spaces and all I want to do is retreat to a dark hole, have a shower, and sleep until tomorrow? The journalist in me was feeling guilty, but the woman in me needed some pampering.

“Well, I do have someone meeting me at the airport and I should probably have a shower before going to your party…,” I begin to explain.

“Have a shower at our house! You are welcome and bring your friend that’s coming to the airport!” he says enthusiastically steamrolling over my roadblocks.

“Oh, hmm…,” thinking it over, “well…maybe that could work,” I said, not completely ready to commit.

* * *
I had managed to fall asleep for about 20 minutes and when I woke up I saw my first glimpse of Afghanistan over the shoulders of Fariba. Even from my limited vantage point it did not disappoint. The jagged mountains reached up at the plane—barren now, but in a month or so would be covered with snow. They screamed of isolation and looked impenetrable and unforgiving despite being silhouetted against a brilliant jewel-colored blue sky.

October 9, 2008, 7:30am: London, England

I had endured the 8 hour bus ride to London in the middle of the night with the belief that when I arrived I would head to Joe’s place in King’s Cross, have a nap, then a shower, check-in for my flight online and take care of other last minute emails and logistics, meet the travel agent (who supposedly had my plane ticket to Kabul), give Joe & Gerhard (who were flying back from Seattle that same day) a welcome home hug and kiss, and then be on my merry way with enough time to pick up last minute essentials at the airport.

Robbed of all of these possibilities thanks to the late arrival of my bus, thereby missing Joe’s roommate before he headed to work, I was forced to do the last of my prep for the trip from Camino, my favorite wifi cafĂ© tucked away not too far from St. Pancras station. Fortunately, it was a good base camp as I literally found everything I needed within a 2 block radius plus several cell phone calls and texts to Andy and Jason, which carried a range of helpful antidotes to prep me for my trip:

“You’re a nightmare! You don’t even know what terminal you’re flying out of??? Just where were you expecting to go when you got there???" –Andy

“Make sure you ask for a room in the back, that way the next time the hotel gets bombed the blast won’t blind you. Although, it really doesn't matter as the whole place is glass... not that there would be anything left... um, sleep with your back to the window.” – Jason

The hours of my 10hr layover in London were quickly passing and I began to get anxious when within an hour of me catching the tube to Heathrow, I had still not heard from my travel agent. I did, however, manage to line up my fixer in Kabul, who would be like my “Alfred” if I was Batman. After a brief phone call we had worked out that he would meet me at the airport with a driver, take care of my hotel reservations, help me buy my domestic plane ticket to Mazar, change my money, get a local SIM card, credit card, and teach me some survival Dari.

Fifteen minutes before I needed to leave for the airport, my travel agent appears. We do the exchange: $700 USD for a roundtrip ticket. We talked about safety, journalists he’s worked with (I find out that he helped Seamus Murphy extensively with his book on Afghanistan), burqas and headscarves.

“So, do I need to get a burqa?” I keep asking this question to different people to see if I will ever get a different response, but each time I’ve received a definite: “No.”

“You’re fine, just the way you are, you’ve got a scarf, so no problem.” I was wearing my old AG jeans and a plaid cowgirlish-like button up shirt. I had wanted to change and have a shower at Joe’s, but…

“…and you don’t look American,” he continues. “Everyone will just assume you’re from the north. I just came back 3 weeks ago, it’s better now. Just make sure you’re not in the wrong place at the wrong time.”


We come out of Camino’s courtyard and are blinded by sunlight. He looks up, “Ah, beautiful. See this sky?” he points upwards, “So different than Afghanistan. The blue of the sky in Afghanistan is unlike anywhere else.” He sighs, then asks, ““Do you know anyone in Kabul?”

“No. Well, yes, but he’s not there yet. I do have someone meeting me at the airport, though.”

“Good, good,” he says as we reach the station and say goodbye.