Standing still is not the same as settling

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Do these come with frequent flyer miles?

Just click your heels three times and repeat: “There’s no place like home!”

I’m back in Canada and now looking to stay for a very long time, perhaps even permanently.

“Seriously? You?!”

Now, before you fall over with complete shock, hear me out. Just inhale deeply, grab a paper bag to breathe into if you must, and let’s move beyond pigeon-holing long enough to see the overall master plan.

When I began my international career I didn’t really know where it would take me – literally. I didn’t even really see myself as having an “international career.” I just knew when I finished university that my passions were writing, travelling, and photography – everything just kind of took off onto its own direction based on that.

I weathered the storms of assumptions, culture shock in every country, faux pas’ in every culture – many of which were experienced in returning to my own country. I have found through the years that the most interesting (and mostly frustrating) point in all of the movement was others’ assumptions that if you followed a different map in life, then clearly you must be lost.

I’m far from lost. I may not have always had 100 per cent visibility on the road ahead, but the destination, and many parts of the journey, has always been clear.

The big picture

Sunset in Koh Phangan

When I first left for Malawi on my first overseas posting I envied my boss’ job. She stayed in Ottawa for 70-80 per cent of the time, but had to frequently travel to various projects in Africa, Asia, and the Americas in order to check on these. She had a great house in a great neighbourhood with great friends and an apparently great social life. And then once every four or five months, she’d head to Burkina Faso, Bolivia, or Bhutan (etc.) to meet and greet, monitor and evaluate, do some souvenir shopping, and then return to Canadaland to prepare reports and feedback to the relevant people. I’ve always wanted this. Unfortunately, rather than getting the 20-30 per cent overseas time, I seem to have only ever done 100 per cent.

This has left me with a bit of a long-term conundrum. I have a family who doesn’t know where I am or what I’m doing most of the time (and worries regularly about protests, bombings, malaria, and where I’m going to find water to drink, never mind bathe in), friends who have just stopped asking when I’ll be home, a dating history that looks like an ad for Disney’s “It’s a Small World” attraction, and a “house” that requires baggage tags and small security locks on all the zippered pockets.

I’m tired.

7-year itch (or just dry skin from all the humidity?)

I’ve been told now by numerous sources, including by a surprisingly enlightened Thai massage woman, that major changes in everyone’s lives come every seven years. It isn’t hard to see references to this in popular cultures – the infamous seven year itch, the seven chakras of the body, 7-year intervals for cellular regeneration and hormonal fluctuations, and so on. I’ve hit one of the seven-year marks in life, and with it the changes are enormous.

Christmas in Chiang Mai

While in Sierra Leone I realised that I was no longer happy in what I was doing. It was time for a change.

With this in mind I left Freetown and headed for my favourite country (so far), Thailand. I love Thailand in that you can “live” there relatively cheaply, have amazing massages every week, enjoy stunning beaches and phenomenal rain forested mountains. Plus, the friends I have there are lovely and always up for a dinner out or for lending a couch to crash on when visiting. For me it’s a nice place to rest and recover from long journeys.

I arrived and went straight to Chiang Mai around Christmas/the winter holidays after some quick electronics shopping and catch-ups with various friends in Bangkok. It was really great seeing old colleagues and friends. And I’ll always love mu-ka-tah (a kind of barbeque, but at your table) and khao soi (a kind of spicy noodle dish) in the north the best – especially when shared with laughter and reminiscing.

The month after this was spent simply relaxing on the beach in the south, in Koh Phangan. I stayed at Bottle Beach, one of my favourite beaches, with a really good friend. Sun, sand, the sea – to say it was relaxing is an understatement.

A group hug at the meditation retreat

I then went into a one-month meditation and yoga program on the island. There are few times when a person gives themselves time to rest, reflect, appreciate, and reconnect in life. This was simply a time to give myself all of this. I will always be so thankful for the opportunity.

I stayed on to work for the retreat centre after this. Well, the truth is that I said and heard “work,” and they said and heard “volunteer.” Sadly, I may have lost some good friends over this misunderstanding.

I went on a couple Thai-based interviews for work, travelled to Bangkok, Khao Sok National Park (gorgeous!), and then back to Koh Phangan for some more rest and relaxation with a good friend from South Africa.

Resting uneasy with social unrest

All of this was amidst the bubbling up of tension in the capital and other cities around the country – from the now-infamous Red Shirt protesters. I didn’t get the job in Bangkok (which is fine – it wasn’t really in my area of interest anyways), and the protests made the other job (Khao Sok) cancel its hiring plans… so a call from frantic family members begging me to come home made me seriously rethink if I wanted to be in Thailand amongst all the issues, or home safe and sound with loving family and friends.

I didn’t manage to pick up all my storage items from Bangkok and Chiang Mai, which has posed some logistical issues. However, as my mom points out, “bags and stuff are replaceable, lives are not.” Now I know, let’s not be dramatic – I’ve been to war zones before and Thailand at this point is far from it. But in the end, I was in those war zones under the protective auspices of some pretty big players on the international development and humanitarian playing field. This time I was 100 per cent on my own and questioning what exactly my next steps were supposed to be. The bags will arrive in time.

And in them perhaps I’ll finally find those ruby slippers I seem to have used and then misplaced. Ah well, my old worn out Tevas will do for some summer fun of inter-Canadian meandering in the meantime.

There really is no place like home.

Welcome to “Sweet Salone.” don’t trust anyone

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Sunset after the rain. View from my office, Freetown, Sierra Leone

When I was in Thailand I met a woman from Zimbabwe who was trying to convince me to return to Africa. “It’s in your heart,” she said. “I can see it in the way you dance, the way you greet and interact with your African colleagues, the way you talk about it – you obviously know Africa well and should be there.” At the time I simply responded that I was happy to be in Asia now.

I thought about what she said for a long time. Everywhere you visit or live has an impact on who you are, the ways in which you see the world, your approach to people and cultures. I realized at the time that Africa taught me many things, as Asia was also teaching me.

Africa taught me about the nature of struggle; it taught me how to develop a thick skin and endure whatever life or people throw at you. It taught me to be strong and hard. It taught me the value of community, family, and how focus on this contributes greatly to the quality of life in general.

Asia taught me gentleness. I learned how to be soft in approach, to take responsibility for my emotions and presence and how to approach everything and everyone with compassion, even-tempered response to everything that comes, and the true value of friendship.

I’m not sure what I’m supposed to learn now that I’m back on the “Mother Continent” and living in Sierra Leone.

Culture shock – been there, done that.

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Mom in Canmore Alberta

So far I’ve faced a massive culture shock – perhaps greater than I’ve ever felt or faced thus far.

I had five months in Canada before coming back to Africa which were incredible. I always enjoy going home as it gives me an opportunity to rest, recover from my journey and “lessons,” and work on a more spiritual side of myself. And as my mom says, “an opportunity to be taken care of” when my career and travels are so centred around taking care of others.

The culture shock has been mostly a result of the contrast between approaches to people. In Thailand (and Asia in general, it seems) you learn quickly to be soft and considerate at all times, but if and when pushed very far you can show a bit of your hard or firm side. Sierra Leone is the complete opposite: be tough and strong, and once you trust (if ever) you can show a softer side of yourself.

I have never been in a country with so much screaming and yelling. This is the first thing I noticed upon arrival. Men yell at women and at other men, women yell at their children, the children yell at each other and the dogs on the street, taxi drivers yell at everyone. It now seems like a weekly event – the woman across the street, sounding like a deeper-throated version of a chicken, screams at gawd-knows-whom every Saturday morning at around 8am and continues for at least 2 hours.

Good morning.

Additionally, as you can imagine, I’ve been thoroughly taken advantage of given my initial “soft” approach to people. Here, softness is considered a weakness – that you’re an easy target for constant harassment for money, Canadian citizenship (the most-desirable country of the year, I’ve heard via expats. Yippee.), sex, jobs, anything you may own or be wearing at the time. While I encountered a lot of this in the DRCongo, it is just simply more intense here. It all makes sense when you put it into context though.

Sierra Leone is third to last on the Human Development Index, meaning it is indeed amongst the poorest countries in the world. A colleague told me that there is a 60% unemployment rate, and the youth, while considered the future of the country, are so frustrated and disillusioned from lack of opportunity and sheer boredom that they end up going to the “dark side” in the end.

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The view from the airplane, somewhere over Sierra Leone

Nation-wide psychosocial disorders.

After a particularly frustrating day this week I came home and re-watched the movie Blood Diamond – mostly in efforts to make historical and psychosocial sense of what I was seeing and encountering. I’ve now come to the perhaps obvious conclusion that the whole country is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (in combination with other issues, I’m sure). Symptoms of this include:

  • re-experiencing original trauma(s), by means of flashbacks or nightmares;
  • avoidance of stimuli associated with the trauma;
  • increased arousal, such as difficulty falling or staying asleep;
  • anger;
  • hyper-vigilance;
  • significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning (e.g. problems with work and/or relationships).

With a whole country limping (literally – see tortures inflicted during the 11-year civil war) towards the possibility of a better life, it’s not difficult to see why everyone is yelling.

Housing Crisis 2009 – or how Naphiri got screwed without even a kiss.

When I arrived I stayed in a small guesthouse called the Solar Hotel. I realized early on that the $90/night fee would very quickly eat through my rapidly dwindling funds (see: constant harassment for money) if I were to stay there long. As a chunky white girl alone in Africa, you can naturally assume that you’ll end up paying four times the price as everyone else so paying “international prices” for a hotel was just not an option when I was already paying so much for basic necessities like food and water.

I asked all my colleagues and new friends if they knew of longer-term (cheaper) places to move to. I spoke to a particular driver at work who seemed friendly and helpful. We’ll call him Murray for now. He vowed to try and help me out by asking around to his contacts as well. My direct supervisor invited me to her house one day where I met a lovely Sierra Leonean landlord, let’s call her Trudy, who had a spare flat in a complex in a nice area. I called Murray to help me to see the place. My first mistake: I told him that I trusted his judgement given that this is his country and he knows what to keep an eye out for when looking at homes.

We saw the place and I instantly fell in love. A two-bedroom furnished apartment with good water, electricity, freshly painted and tiled walls and floors, and a very accommodating landlord – all for under US$5,000/year (a miracle in this country, I assure you!) plus utilities. Murray didn’t say much but just looked around and simply nodded to everything I said regarding the place.

The next day he said he’d thought about it more and felt that UN security would not approve of it for me. He cited missing barbed wire at the back of the building and convinced me that the neighbourhood was actually quite sketchy. Murray went on about how my security and safety is absolutely paramount (ironic in the end). He said that I should look at a place he found for me as well – to keep an open mind and have options in the end.

I liked the idea of comparison shopping and so went to this new proposed place. Huge. 3-bedroom mansion with a giant paved backyard (house parties, anyone?!), boys’ quarters (i.e. small maid’s room off the back of the house), a gazebo in the garden (where the DJ booth would go, of course), and absolutely no furniture (including fridge, cook stove, or anything beyond a concrete floor and walls for that matter – well, AND the DJ’s gazebo, of course). I told him that the house was way too large for me and that I had originally had no plans for getting a roommate, never mind investing what little money I had left – from having to pay an entire year in advance – into basics like a bed or fridge. Thank gawd I bought a portable gas stove before I left Canada or I would have gone hungry for the first week (or have paid for inflated-price restaurant meals at least twice a day).

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African plumbing made easy...

In the end I got caught up in Murray’s arguments that this was the best option I would ever find; the negotiations with the landlord that found me suddenly paying US$500 more than the original price for the year; and the whirlwind of bed shopping in a crowded market downtown (I’ve loathed public markets ever since getting mugged in one in Johannesburg).

Murray asked me at one point what I was doing with the boys’ quarters. I made a deal with him that if he dealt with the workmen who were required to repair the electricity, plumbing, doors, locks, etc, etc, etc ad nauseum issues that plagued this old mansion (with gawd knows what kind of history), he could have it for free. Besides, I told him, I would feel safer with the neighbours seeing that a man also lived on the premises. I trusted this guy so completely that I even lent him an expensive extra celphone I had when he said his was not working (don’t worry, I get it back in the end).

Trudy called one day, after a week of living in Hell Mansion, to ask why I didn’t call back to do a security assessment (requirement for UN staff) on her apartment. I told her the whole story and expressed my intense regret for not taking her lovely flat [insert sound of yelling workmen in my house in the background - here]. Then the truth came out. Apparently Murray returned to the flat the night we saw it to demand a commission for finding the place for me. Trudy basically told him to take a flying leap as it was my supervisor, a personal friend of Trudy’s, who had found the flat for me. My supervisor, who had been out of the country on business when all this was going on, was also told about Murray’s treachery.

I suddenly realized that I’d been taken for a ride – that Murray now had made a commission off of me, had a free place to stay, AND a free cellphone (which by this point he’d personalized and added new ring tones and photos – NOT standard practice for someone “borrowing” something).

Thank gawd I work with lawyers.

I managed to wiggle out of the existing lease for the mansion and am now fighting to get back some of the US$1000 deposit I put on it (am conceivably skeptical about its return). My flat at Trudy’s is spectacular and exactly what I wanted from the very beginning. I have a fridge, a soft comfy bed, gas cook stove, sofa set, and almost all the amenities of a flat in Canada. And no Murray or other roommates hanging around to figure out how to screw me further.

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A home-made ladder (no, you couldn't pay me enough to get up on it!), Freetown

I love my home now.

My supervisor suggested after the incident to make a formal complaint against Murray, as the drivers are expected to be the “ambassadors” for the organization – helping us out-of-sorts newbies get our grounding and all the basics we need to live. I have a hard time, despite getting screwed, putting a Sierra Leonean out of a job, no matter how dubious his motives may be. I vowed to base my decision on writing a complaint on his reaction to the news of me moving out. To my surprise, he came bouncing into the office after the weekend talking about how great it was that I moved into Trudy’s and how I would be much happier there. I’m thinking he figured out that he was caught. I scrapped the complaint letter and am watching him carefully now. He gave me back the phone.

The right decision?

Admittedly, I took the job here primarily based on the the focus and projects, as well as the compensation. I’m on a 3-month consultancy contract and the organization really wants me to stay on for an additional year. Unfortunately an extension can be offered only at a ¼ of my consultancy pay and comes with a “demotion” in title on the CV under a different contract. Hmmm… As always I’m reading the air and the surroundings while staying open to the new, but I also have a hard time breaking commitments already made. I also like the focus of the work I have planned for next year: more edutainment initiatives around justice and sexual and gender-based violence. I’m planning on a trip back to Thailand at Christmas to get a bit of R&R, pampering, and some of my stuff I left in storage there. I’m hoping that regular trips to “sanity” outside of the country will help with keeping that soft gentle and loving side I worked so hard to develop in Chiang Mai.

I think that the hardest part of all this is simply feeling that as much as you crave it, you could give Sierra Leone the earth, moon, sun, and all the money in the world and it still would seem to make little difference.

My hopes are that I’ll start seeing more of the “positives” in the country. I’ve begun meditating regularly during the day to keep my stress and anger levels low – especially when waiting hours for transportation or dealing with yet another person trying to get my attention for somethingorother.

Breeeeeathe deeply…

Will do.

And if all else fails, I’ll just put my head out the window and scream really really loudly.

Maybe that way I’ll blend in.

Zen and the art of motorcycle collisions

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Something that all Thai Buddhists grow up inherently knowing is that change is the only constant. Ends are just brief periods of instability signaling a time of rebirth to come. There is nothing you can control; no attachments you can make.

I only wish we were taught such things from birth in the western world. Maybe then it wouldn’t always be such a shock to the system. Maybe then I could begin blog entries with something other than, “wow, so much has changed in the last X weeks/months…”

So I’ll be unique this time in saying, as expected by universal laws, I’m moving again.

The last year has been fantastic. I’ve been so busy enjoying my life that I’ve spent little time documenting it (and/or possibly bombarding readers with massive tomes that recount the numerous adventures of the past 4-5 months!).

So why am I hitting the airport tarmac once more? Well, the organization lost its core funding meaning a 70 per cent reduction in everything – including staff. Due to the global economic crisis all donor countries seem to be making a list and checking it twice to find out who’s naughty or nice. Basically, the long and short is that we have to close. I need to plan my next move.

I went through a trio of emotional waves around the event. The first was simply the shock of the loss of the job, my expectations and attachments, the programs and all the work I contributed to them in the last year and a bit. The second was realizing that I would potentially never again see many of the wonderful people I worked and played with, and maybe never returning to Chiang Mai or Thailand again. The third was when I actually had to sit down to a meeting where the topic was how best to deconstruct my programmatic constructions. It’s hard for an artist to see their mural taken apart or painted over. I’m trying to keep my pet Ego firmly locked away in her cage for the sake of “effective transference of programmatic priorities.”

I was asked about two months ago (long before I got the news) what my next career step was, what was the ‘5 year plan’? I answered honestly at the time that I really had no idea, that I had worked for the last six years to get to this current position and that I was so happy in it I really wasn’t thinking beyond that at this point. I’m now forced to reconsider the question in a new light.

Two motorcycle accidents in the same week that I learned of the job loss also contributed to a giant attitude adjustment.

Crashing

me in the mirror

me in the mirror

I like to say now (after responding to the same question from 40,000+ well-meaning inquirers) that the accidents were the other guys’ faults, but the injuries were mine.

What I mean by that is that in both instances the guy came up around me and then made a turn that cut me off and forced me to hit my brakes quickly or hit him. The first time this happened it was easy to see who was at fault. Motorcycles are not always the most noticeable to SUV drivers. But after two incidents in one week, a whack of Thai friends telling me to “slow down! Jai yen yen! (trans: cool your heart)” even though I was only going max 20kms both times, and a job loss forcing me to contemplate life’s deeper plans… well, let’s just say that I had to seriously consider the reasons for this sudden string of events.

A more experienced motorcycle driver friend of mine offered the key to the puzzle – apparently (unknown to a novice like me) you’re always supposed to hit the back brakes first before the front, otherwise you flip over the handlebars at fast speed or, like in my case, you fishtail. Right, noted.

Revving too high

But the Thai friends were also right – maybe it is time to slow down. I’ve been revving my internal brain and work engine so high lately I definitely need a bit of a break. I’m thinking to head to the beach and take advantage of my 15 banked remaining leave days (large numbers of banked leave days = a definite indicator of overwork and accompanying need for regular doses of beach).

But it’s not all play and no work for Naphiri. There are a few whispers in the wind so I’m feeling positive about the next steps. There are a few nibbles coming in via the Inbox for possibilities in Asia. My plans at this point are:

a) finish all remaining work
b) sell off what I can, and what I won’t need, and give away the rest
c) hit the beach for a couple weeks (months?) vacation and R&R – as long as the money lasts
d) head back to Canadaland for some TLC from friends and family
e) continue on to the next destination, once determined.

a Thai beach boy looks out to sea on Koh Phangan

a Thai beach boy looks out to sea on Koh Phangan

So the game plan, in a switch from the usual play, is to unwind from a year of very intense work (yes, as usual the work-play ratio was heavily lopsided) and then see where the wind takes me. Bet, my motorcycle, is aching to hit the road again.

This time I’ve learned the lesson. Slow down (we’re not just talking road speed here), take many deep breaths, hit the back brake first, and leave the attachments and insecurities at home. Everything happens for a reason.

Buddha bless us all.

You can call me “Doi”

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The other morning around 5am I was sitting out on my 7th floor balcony admiring the view of the mountains directly behind my apartment. In the mornings I can see the sunrise glowing bright gold as it reflects off of Doi Suthep’s shining pagoda. I couldn’t sleep so was having a cup of tea to begrudgingly start the day early. My apartment is surrounded on one side by the mountains and on the others by sparse apartment buildings and thick dense jungle breaking them up from their nearly identical multi-level plaster white twins.

Just as my mind started to wander towards the work that awaited me at the office I looked up to see the most idyllic and picturesque, in a kind of movie scene way, sunrise over the hills. Just then a white dove flew by and flew lazy loops between me and the doi. I started to laugh at the surreal feeling of being trapped in some director’s fantasy of absolute visual perfection.

I have very little time for reflection these days, hence the sporadic but novel-like blog entries. Despite my efforts to maintain a work-personal life balance I’m afraid that the scales tip biased far too much to create any kind of regular time out. In spite of this, however, I get really good balcony time each morning, regular invites for dinner and outings with friends, and apparently frequent travel opportunities for work or with visitors.

The last few months have been hectic, to say the least. I’ll briefly touch on some of the highlights in order of appearance.

Rockin’ out at the Reggae Festival, Pai

Feb 8-10

I went with a few friends, some local and some farang (expats/foreigners), to Pai, a town about 4 hours by bus from Chiang Mai for an annual reggae festival. The mood was fantastic – great people with big smiles and warm hugs. One friend joked that these were indeed Buddha’s messengers when we arrived to a path leading to the stage dotted with smiling people waving and saying hello/saa-wat-dii! It was a nice welcome to a frenzy of all-night dancing to reggae and hip-hop from Thailand, Korea, Japan, and other mixed international bands. Earlier in the weekend my good friend Oh, who is truly the best hostess and trip coordinator

I’ve met (and a beautiful fantastic woman), introduced us all (many friends joined us off and on throughout the weekend) to the myriad of her friends who either lived in Pai or who had come for the festival. We ended up one night at a lovely campground owned by a friend of hers where we sat around a fire after wandering around and photographing the stunning pond with a bamboo footbridge to a covered platform complete with pillows for lounging. The landscaping was incredible for a campground and we had a great time at the fire laughing and telling stories in English and Thai (despite me being sniffly from a cold that had been building all week prior).

The funniest bit was getting back home. On the bus heading into town a colleague who’d joined me and I were talking about how we should definitely maintain this great feeling inspired by the fun and relaxing weekend away. I was determined not to let the stress of work overcome the full mellow happiness I’d found for the first time since arriving and settling into my new life in Thailand. Within two hours of being at the office on Monday I went into his office to ask him for something. After speaking a mile a minute to explain what I needed and why he looked me straight in the face and said, “Babe, don’t lose that reggae feeling.” I laughed at how easy it was to slip into PowerSuit Mode despite my best intentions to avoid getting there.

Training Asia; Packing up, moving on

Mar 3-5

The PowerSuit was fully donned for the lead up and the climax of my first ever training for the organisation. We had over 15 citizen journalists from across Asia join us in Chiang Mai for an issue-focused journalism 2-day training. It went well and I was told by my boss that I was a really great facilitator. I felt great about my contribution, especially in light of the fact that I was completely physically, emotionally, and logistically exhausted from trying to move house at the same time.

A friend I’d met in Pai offered to sublet his absolutely stunning bachelor pad to me for the same price I was paying at my first apartment. I didn’t initially want to move as I was fine in the first place, however after returning from seeing the new place – complete with the incredible view and great location in the heart of the city’s Thai university crowd (read: great restaurants and trendy shops) – to my dingy dark and depressing place in the middle of Backpacker Central (not its real name), the choice was obvious to me despite the inconvenience of having to move and the short sublet time (5 months, with possibility to stay longer depending on his situation).

I’ve heard many comments from numerous people that my entire outlook has changed since I moved. With the view, a pool, a gym, the great shops and restaurants, and all-around great setup, how can my perspective not change? I hope I can stay here as long as humanly possible.

Bangkok mayhem with an ex Mar 15-16, Chiang Mai reunion

Mar 19-22

While the apartment is a decent size, it’s really not made for more than one person to live. I found this out when I got a great visit from my ex-boss from the DRC. I met him in Bangkok and we had a fantastic time. Busy, but fantastic. It was my first time in Bangkok and I found it insanely overwhelming after the quiet, quaint and slow-moving small town of Chiang Mai. On discussing the weekend as I was leaving to head back to CM (he stayed in BKK for a few days to run errands) I realised that after visiting numerous malls, textile and tailor shops, museums, massage parlours, nightclubs and the red light district, restaurants and hot spots, I really did need a weekend to recover from my weekend. An all-night bus from BKK to CM gave me little opportunity to sleep (no, for some reason I can’t sleep when my knees are around my chin!) and I arrived incredibly groggy for work on Monday.

He joined me again in CM a few days later where he got a good taste of my new life – meeting friends and colleagues, going to some good restaurants, and enjoying some good chats on the balcony. We had a bit of a struggle as we both tried to adapt to these new roles of friends rather than employee-boss, and all this while living in a small bachelor pad together for the first time ever. I felt bad that I couldn’t really take him to some of the outlying areas due to absolute fatigue, but we had a lovely day at the lake (reservoir) just 40 minutes from the centre of town. There you can cruise around the lake, have something to eat, swim from little platforms attached to shore by bamboo footbridge (yes, I really like this part of Thailand water landscaping!) and get massages under the platform’s covered thatch roof. I made a mental note to return alone some day with a book and a journal for some intense zen-soaking up.

Cambodia’s sobering history and a highly successful training

Mar 29-Apr 1

I found another kind of meditative mood when I went to Cambodia. I took an extra day on the weekend to go before the week’s training in order to see some of the sights of Phnom Penh. The Tuol Sleng genocide museum is an abandoned school in which victims of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge rounded up thousands of innocent Cambodians for torture, most often to death. The rows of photographs not only showed the meticulousness of documentation of the regime (scarily impressive for a Communications Manager who struggles just to keep the organisation’s documents and photos organised in a single location!), but the terrified and defiant eyes of the victims. Photos in each room of the old school complex, as well as the instruments of torture (including leg/arm chains and batteries hooked to bedframes), were displayed in their original locations, complete with impossible-to-remove blood stains from the vinyl tiled floors.

The Killing Fields were slightly less hair-raising as the whole site is basically a large field with trees and giant pits from which the bodies were excavated. Particular trees carried signs explaining how this one was used to tie up adolescent boys for beatings. The main monument in the centre of the fields is a giant glass and concrete monolith where you can see the thousands of sculls and bones of the victims piled on top of each other due to the impossibility of actually identifying those killed.

While this was a very sobering introduction to the country, the training I was there to do that week went quite well. Despite some language barriers, my colleague and I were able to achieve what we set out to do with these citizen journalists in training. The Cambodian people absolutely blew me away with their genuine smiles and easy-going nature, despite such a terrible history. The interesting part of the whole experience for me was noticing the age gap where there seemed to be so few people on the street who weren’t either under 30 or over 50.

Bless my computer, PLEASE! Apr 11; All wet in Chiang Mai

Apr 13-16

All ages assembled on the streets of Chiang Mai the weekend after I returned for the annual Songkran festival. I can’t even begin to explain the mayhem that comes with this giant country-wide Thai New Years water fight.

The festivities kicked off with an office celebration in which monks chanted in our cleared-out board room. The monks went on to bless each room of the office with sprinkles of consecrated flower water (I asked a Thai colleague if he’d please request extra sprinkles for my computer – to bring me additional editing and coordination skills – but he just smiled and walked away for some reason!). A huge lunch was prepared and we had a great time just hanging out and chatting while dressed in traditional Lanna (northern Thai) dress. While I would’ve liked to have had more traditional garb, I had to settle on a business skirt and patterned blouse, which no one seemed to notice or mind in any case!

The next day was a day off since it was the first official day of Songkran. Three days of being absolutely soaked resulted not only in fantastic fun, but general chapping of every possible bit of skin on my body. I’m sure lotion sales skyrocket around this time of year! I bought the huge SuperSoaker of my dreams and walked the streets soaking wet, despite my threatening Rambo-like stance, as Thais and Farang alike doused me and each other with buckets, guns, and hoses full of ice-cold water. My first reaction to the whole thing was relief – the heat of Thailand can be overwhelmingly intense. However after the third day, and a near-miss of having my laptop destroyed since I thought that the celebrations had to be over by now, I was more than ready to be dry.

Pool party – more opportunities to see your colleagues and friends semi-naked

Apr 19

More water fun ensued the weekend after when I had my official housewarming party. I had the event catered and bought some pool toys for the friends and colleagues who popped in to see my new digs. The party moved from the pool to my balcony later on in the evening where everyone seemed to have a stellar time. I was simply impressed that I had no less than 7 friends on the balcony (and about 7 more in my apartment) at the same time! I seriously didn’t think it possible!

VIPs in town mean that Naphiri is UN’s bitch for the week

Apr 23-25

Things got considerably more serious as the entire office prepared for a high level UNAIDS meeting the week after my housewarming. As the Communications Facility for this event (we won the bid! Yay team!!), our entire office was thrown into a giant schmooze fest while we prepared the displays, the work we would do at the event, and all the communications products to support our “we are the best” claims to potential funders and diplomats.

I was mostly busy during the event being the serf of one of the key women organising the NGO part of the meeting. I ran my legs off photocopying documents, taking notes of inanely dull UN-speak plenaries, designing the communiqué for the members, and getting office equipment and information packs to those who needed them. It was completely exhausting, but the woman warmly thanked me, congratulated me for a job exquisitely done, and presented me with a lovely grey/blue silk scarf (apparently to match my gorgeous eyes, she said ).

And then a couple of cool chicks land on my doorstep and hijack me to the beach

Apr 25-May 13

In the midst of the insanity I got a visit from my ex’s sister and her friend. It was great to see her, yet so strange to have her with me outside of the context of her entire family (and my ex, obviously!). I flew to meet the two in Bangkok literally one hour after I’d tied up remaining loose ends from the high-level meeting. We partied hard, stayed in the grottiest of guesthouses, and shopped till we dropped. The girls were great to hang with as they’d been traveling around India and Nepal for the last month or so – they were in full “anything goes and it’s all good” mode so we had a fantastic and somewhat relaxing time (despite the all-night dring and dance-a-thon at the clubs!), all told.

I brought them both back to Chiang Mai where they did some chilling out at home and sightseeing in town while I worked. Evenings we went out with friends, had great food, and caught up on life in general.

I got a week and a half off of work, and after a quick business trip to Myanmar/Burma, we headed to Bangkok once again. It was a short stopover before then bussing, boating, and more bussing to get to the beach of Koh Samui. It was nice enough, but my luck proved bad on the island. I almost lost my phone (mental note: don’t charge cels when waiting for a bus for which you’ll have to rush!), got into a minor scrape with another motorbike on the streets (I’m perfectly fine and I practiced my St. Johns Ambulance training when bandaging the small cut on her foot), and then had to pay for the damages despite the boss of the girl stating that she’d pay (couldn’t, for some strange reason, get through on the phone number she gave me… what a shocker!).

My good friend Ben came through from Koh Phangan to Koh Samui on his way to Chiang Mai to wrap up some business. He easily convinced me to head to Bottle Beach, a fantastic semi-private beach with cozy bungalows right on the shore. He handed over his bright orange hammock as a welcome gift and my friend Linda, who’d joined us in Bangkok, and I headed off on yet another boat to get to the beach. The two girls remained on Koh Samui due to simply not wanting to travel anymore

(understandable after all the stories they told of sickness and crazy adventures in Asia thus pre-Thailand!). We said our goodbyes and packed our stuff for the next beach to come.

We arrived to the classical paradise tired but happy to find a haven where we could park for a while of relaxation and sun-soaking. White soft sand beach with shells of every colour, palm trees swaying in the gentle wind and turquoise blue water lapping the shore – it was phenomenal. I spent most of my time there napping in the hammock, sipping fresh lemon/lime sodas and cold coconut milk from the shell, eating pad thai with prawns caught that morning, and snorkelling with Linda and the new friends I met there. I marvelled to realise that I opened my laptop only once, but to watch a movie one evening as opposed to doing work! We had a great time, but I was quite happy to head off at the end of the week or so there to get back to my home where I didn’t have to constantly wipe sand out of various orifices and clean comfy and dry clothes awaited my return.

I just want to wear something that doesn’t smell like fish! Homecoming to “normalcy” (??!!)

May 27

Returning was nice but I definitely came back to a fair amount of work, as to be expected. Many of my friends are currently on business trips and/or have left the country now. So while it’s a bit lonely I’m actually quite happy for the quiet and the opportunity to dig my heels a little further into my work. We recently hired a new staff member for me to manage (making that a current personal management responsibility count of 3 Thai staff, 1 “monitored” Thai staff member, 1 “monitored” African staff member, and 1 North American volunteer!) and this new employee has been making a great contribution to the team. Thankfully with her in control of many responsibilities my work load seems to be decreasing exponentially by the day.

I love management. I’m not sure if I’ve ever publicly acknowledged this, but I really really do.

Oh, and as part of a nice little “gift” from one Thai staff member I was officially given a Thai name. You can call me “Doi”. Translated, it means “the Peak or Pinnacle (of a mountain)”

Yes, I’m definitely at the pinnacle. It suits where I’m sitting emotionally and literally these days, I think. I love my life a lot.

… and maybe in the next post I’ll tell you about my current love interest that’s becoming a bit more interesting and serious…

“A Funny Loving Creature”

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I can’t even begin to outline all the changes that have happened since my last blog. But here’s my attempt.

I spent a great 5 months in Calgary working on my health, spending time with the family, and enjoying a sizeable spiritual adventure. A cleanse from the naturopath seemed to result in not only dropping a couple pants sizes, but a whole whack of excess baggage. Resolved some issues with family and renewed relationships with those I love, spent a fantastic time with a very very special friend (Miss A, I love you and miss you!) getting to know Calgary once more, and got a job.

I’m in Thailand now. It’s beyond phenomenal.

I started a wonderful job as Managing Editor for a health organization. It’s the first time in my professional life where not only am I running around like a maniac with so much to do, but I’m doing it in a friendly supportive environment where people seem to respect me and the work that I’m doing. The responsibilities are enormous and I often feel overwhelmed, but I often catch myself being impressed by my sheer brilliance in meetings and strategic sessions. I love my job. I can’t wait for the next two years of it.

The city in which I live is also pretty amazing. Chiang Mai (CM) is this lovely little chilled out city surrounded by a moat and a semi-walled inner core. Today I visited the pride and joy of CM, the wat (temple) they call Doi Su Thep. It was pretty touristy, but it’s still hard not to be impressed by the sparkly mirrors and gold that practically overwhelms the visitor at every turn. I got there by moped as I’m renting one from a colleague until my contract is extended from the initial four months to two years – that I expect is pretty imminent since work seems to love me as much as I love it/them. I’ll probably buy one when the extension comes as the freedom it gives has been great.

I feel bad that I’ve not been able to write anyone back home until now. Honestly, I literally walked into a huge transition time for the organization and so have been pretty key in both conceptualizing and implementing a lot of their communications processes. My spare time is usually spent avoiding the computer and watching loads of new-season Dr. Who (aka: zoning out completely). Please, no jokes about being a big nerd… I aspire to BE Dr. Who. And only those who’ve seen at least three episodes and can still say they don’t like it have the right to point fingers and be the first to yell, “nerd”.

In my first week, when not working (yes, I started on Day 2 of arriving!), I visited most of the wats in the city, settled into my little bachelor’s pad (basically a hotel room with a TV, mini-fridge, wardrobe, slightly lop-sided bed, and a funny hand-held sprayer at the toilet rather than paper – yes, first time using a bidet-style system, admittedly… and they’re everywhere that doesn’t just have a squat pit in the floor!). I also went to quite a few dinners and evening get-togethers with colleagues who are fast becoming good friends.

It was also in my first week that I was given a kitten by a monk. He’s since gone his way after eating about four times his weight in food.

I was wandering around one of the oldest and coolest wats on
the north side of the moat and there was this tiny little orange
tabby kitten circling my legs meowing. I picked him up and cuddled him for a while as I walked the grounds. A monk in a brilliant orange robe walked by and stopped to stare at me. Now, you’re not supposed to even touch a monk, and they generally keep to themselves, especially around tourists and farang (white folks like m’self), so this was even weirder to be cradling a kitten while a monk stared and smiled widely at me. So he turns to me and in this soft voice says, “I see you like animals.” I said, “yeah, sure… I like cats a lot.” So then he responds, “Well, this one really likes you as well. He is yours.” I stare for a second and then look down at this cute little kitty that is now purring and sleeping contented in my arms. I ask him who owns the cat and how much I’d need to pay if I wanted to keep him. The monk responds that it belongs to no one but me and that if I want him I should keep him.

So I brought him home and bathed and fed him and cuddled him all night for a couple nights. It was nice to have a fuzzy friend with whom to share my bed, if only for a couple nights. On Monday, when I returned to work, I let him out in the morning only to find that he never returned.

I’m learning the Buddhist fine art of detachment. So far, so good.

I’m also applying this art to my recent “single” status. The GF (now ex) and I broke up around Christmas, just before I left for Thailand. And to be honest, I am more exasperated over the “are you okay?” questions than I am distraught over the actual breakup. I mean, I guess I saw it coming all along but was in some kind of denial/hopeful place for at least a year. I’m glad that one of us had the courage to do what we both perhaps saw coming.

Detachment.

In the meantime I have a massage therapist from the corner spa completely (apparently) in lust with me, occasional drunken folks at clubs propositioning me, and most of Chiang Mai I’ve met thinking I’m, in the words of another colleague, “a funny loving creature”. I dig it.

No commitments, no attachments. Just pure fun love.

I took in the first ever gay pride march on the streets of CM last night. It was smaller than most of the parades I’ve been in/seen (150-200 ppl), but some friends and I had a great time playing the now-all-to-familiar game of Guess Which One’s An Actual Biological Woman. After playing the photographer, checking out the lovely androgyny that surrounded me, and showing solidarity by marching the street for a while, I went with friends to the “red light” district to have a couple drinks and watch the prostitutes and old men hassle each other. Again, the game was good fun.

I’m looking forward to big plans of travel to Bangkok some weekend. I also plan on heading south to the beaches (Thank you, Lonely Planet, for a SCUBA guide on Thailand!!), and checking out the neighboring countries of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. I also will be learning Thai, enrolling in some Thai Massage classes when the salary is a little more regular, and perhaps learning some tips ‘n’ techniques on silversmithing from the hill tribes that have made the trade so popular here.

In the meantime I’m loving my new life in CM. I don’t know when the honeymoon will end (as it often does), but for now I’m enjoying the mutual love-in I have with this country. I miss my friends and family, of course. But I’m rocking out so hard at work that I really don’t even have time to breathe most days. And luckily Asia doesn’t seem to suffer from the same problems of internet connectivity that Africa did/does – Skype me, folks!!

Loving every second of it.

Signed,

A Funny Loving Creature

The future’s so bright… did I remember to pack sunscreen?

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After a six-month “rest” in Canada and a job gone sour (my supervisor was… well, let’s just say I don’t use those kinds of words in mixed company) I’m back on the market once more. While I’m trying to see things on the sunnier side of the street, I have to admit that I had far too many expectations of what “home” was supposed to be like.

My primary expectations were that it would be easy, simple to adapt back to, and the streets were lined with people offering me interesting and meaningful work.It’s been great hooking up with old friends and my partner, not being stared at on the street (i.e. finally blending in with the crowd), and enjoying the comfort and familiarity of Toronto. Transportation systems that work, people who speak my language, and being able to easily get Asian food any time of the day or night – it’s been fun playing tourist in my own country.

But now we’re off again. Can’t keep a couple of good nomads down, it seems. The GF got a job offer with her old organization so she’s heading back to Jozi on the 10th of September. For the last few months I’ve been doing what I can/need to do in order to stay in Toronto and spend time with her, but now that she’s off… well, there’s really not much keeping me here. It’s been fun folks; I’ll grab my hat and wave goodbye on my way out.

I have a couple options that may or may not be open back in Africa and I’m just waiting to hear back from those… and trying not to panic that my life is currently one big blank open book. (Not succeeding very well, admittedly).

We’re doing a two week trip to see the family in Calgary before she heads off – and since she’s never met any of my family in the last 5 years of being together… well, it’s just about time.

And after that…
Who knows?

Wish me luck. Here we go, back on the crazy open road that is my existence.

Home, Ipods and all the Starbucks you can drink

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So that job in Canada I interviewed for via Johannesburg came through. I’m happy to announce that I’m back home and contentedly settling into Toronto living.

The job is good. My bachelor apartment is good. I have a penthouse pad and a swimming pool… and a minimall on the first floor, complete with Korean takeaway, a dollar store, and video rental shop. All is good, except for the weather. I’m totally not adapting to this frigid cold and hating every moment of it. The other day I watched the snow play and whirl around a streetlight and it was beautiful. About a second later I realised my fingers were freezing into position and all beauty vanished instantly.

I hate cold.

Fortunately my apartment is warm and slowly becoming more comfortable. It’s unfurnished so I’m working my butt off to find cheap/free furniture. Fortunately I live in a complex where people seem to come and go often enough for me to take advantage of the posts in the laundry room. I’m picking up a $50 bed tomorrow. Yay to no more thermarest air mattress “sleeping”.

I’m also happy to report that I’ve managed to reconnect with a couple friends here. One in particular brought me out dancing last weekend and introduced me to all her friends. The next day after I stayed at her house we all had brunch and it was great to be suddenly amidst a happy chattering English-speaking group of people with whom I seem to have a fair bit in common. InstaFriends are good.

Otherwise I’ve been just walking around enjoying that which I haven’t for a while and marvelling at my new eyes and how they’re seeing this old/new world. My initial perceptions (don’t bother to correct me if I’m wrong – it’s all opinion anyways):

  • Canadians (well, Torontonians, anyways) are busy – book 2 weeks in advance if you want a coffee/dinner date
  • Everyone owns a travel coffee mug and an Ipod – and they must bring these both everywhere
  • It’s great to walk after dark, even if your toes are freezing
  • Any kind of food you can want from anywhere in the world is here
  • I’m no longer a visible minority
  • I’m no longer very attractive to every man who passes me on the street
  • Toronto (or maybe just my InstaFriends) like(s) rock and “edgy” music
  • Dj’s talk too much on the radio, especially in the morning
  • Everyone’s an artist (photographer, painter, musician, actor, sculptor, avant-garde po-mo somethingorother)
  • Everyone’s trying not to be like everyone else
  • To be trendy is totally uncool. But trying to be “underground” is lame. Cool is supposed to come naturally but everyone is struggling so desperately to somehow find it
  • Subway’s make you nauseous if you’re not used to moving at such high velocities
  • Chinese food tastes better when it’s cooked by Chinese people
  • North American’s are bombarded by reams of seemingly useless information (Do I care what Celebrity X wore to Event Y?!), and a lot of it
  • Sales clerks and restaurant people don’t care to make small talk or extensive greetings, “What can I get you?” actually equals “I don’t feel like telling you I’m fine, just order your damn curlyfries bitch!”
  • No one in this city is actually FROM this city (including me)
  • Sidewalks are very very clean and straight
  • No one honks (hoots, to my SA friends!) unless absolutely provoked to do so
  • Everything is easy and accessible
  • No one says “cheers” unless they’re drinking, “Ya” (pronounced “Yaww”) unless they’re German (or South African – though there aren’t many of those around in the cold winter months!), and no one smiles in elevators.

I’ve been walking around for the last week with my jaw around my knees from the sheer speed and enormity of this new home of mine.

But this morning I walked off the subway with a travel mug of coffee in hand and my Ipod earphones in my ears.

Hmm… I guess I am Canadian afterall.

It’s good to be back.

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