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Not-So-Secret Aid Worker, aka Daddy Aid Worker part 3

In Career Development, Home Life, Humanitarian Response, Kids, Travel on May 11, 2016 at 10:10 am

For the handful of you that read this blog – thank you very much, by the way! – you’ll have noticed that I’ve been open about my career development in relation to my personal life. I’ve written a few articles about being a traveling parent (Daddy Aid Worker 1 and 2).

Recently I got myself published in the Guardian Global Development Professionals weekly “Secret Aid Worker” column. The article was called, “Can only the childless and unattached manage the work we do?” I’m hoping that one and this blog post will be the epilogue articles about this subject from me (the daddy aid worker, “it’s so hard to travel and be away from my family” stuff), especially now that I’m out of the aid worker business.

I don’t feel any hesitation in outing myself as the author. Unlike some other Secret Aid Worker columns, I’m not putting anyone in danger, risking getting myself or a colleague fired, or otherwise alienating anyone. I just wanted to highlight my story about managing my specific situation, and what I had to say fit in with a call for articles that the SAW editors had put out there.

So obviously, if you’re reading this post maybe you care enough to click through and read the SAW story linked above. I’ll wait.

OK, first of all, they had to cut it back a bit because they wanted it to be more like 800 words or so. They also took out a little nuance. I didn’t expand too much more than they cut but there are some things I wanted to expand and explain from my end, given what they cut, and respond to some of the comments I’ve had from connections and publicly on the Guardian site.

First, I just want to reiterate how great my supervisors were at my last job. Both of them were also men with young families who also happened to telecommute, and they made every effort to be supportive and respectful of my desire to limit the length of my trips. And, I want to note that I even made these conditions clear throughout my hiring process, so it’s not like I went into my last job with any disingenuous promises. We all knew what we were getting into. We knew there would be lots of short notice travel – allowing me to work from home and move closer to family was supposed to mitigate that. We (meaning my wife and I) gave it a try for over a year, it wasn’t working for us and I took a great opportunity to transition to a different kind of job that works for us all. It was a little sooner than I would have originally intended, because I wanted to give the CRS job at least 2-3 years, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to stay anchored to my community and have a more family friendly, 9-5, US based job. I left CRS for the only opportunity I would ever have left them for, short of winning the proverbial lottery.

Secondly, we stopped making any attempt to live internationally 10 years ago when we found out our oldest daughter is autistic, so we’ve always been based in the USA. I’ve always been a HQ-based person who travels. Yes there are other people in similar situations (parenting special needs kids) who make that work overseas with various specialists people keep telling me about, in places like Nairobi or wherever, but I was never badass enough to be recruited into a position perfect enough to accommodate the kind of education and family support that my daughter needs. I didn’t think that was germane to the SAW format. Plus, it’s a super personal topic; I never write publicly about my daughter’s autism, because it opens the floodgates to advice from people who are not in our situation and don’t have the whole story. She’s doing very well now, incidentally.

Third, I’m completely aware of the “first-world problem” nature of this issue (“Can an aid worker with a young family make it work?”). I know there are a ton of people from the “global south” working outside their home countries – they get stuck as an expat because they’ll never make as much money at home, so they end up working away from home for extended periods of time, way more than I would ever be able to. More power to them, it’s really damn difficult. I tried hard as a recruiter not to put colleagues in those kinds of situations and impose the choice to separate from their families or not, at least without making sure they’ve thought about it. I would always keep in mind that if your HR is offering you an opportunity, it’s hard to say no, you worry what that would do to your reputation.

Another thing I couldn’t expand on as much in the piece is this idea of being so de-synchronized from my wife and kids. When you’re home all the time you have a daily knowledge of stuff – what chapter you’re on with the book you’re reading your 9 year old, where your son left a Lego figure when we went out to lunch the other day, what chore you need to do tonight, etc. That all goes away and takes days to build up again while you’re away, and it causes a distancing that, for me, started to feel profoundly shitty the more I traveled.

Finally, I want it noted, for the record, that my wife never felt any resentment, as I implied in the SAW piece. She just wanted to support me, and I read too much into things and assumed too much. I’m a lucky man.

There are a core group of aid workers (and many professionals in general I guess) out there that always like to bear a cross and show the world how busy they are and how hard they work… my view is that EVERY. SINGLE. PERSON. that I’ve ever admired in terms of their professional accomplishments (like “dent in the universe accomplishments”), when you do the research and read the biographies or other various accounts of their real lives, that because work came first – they either never started a family or their family life suffered. I liked what Anne Marie Slaughter had to say on the subject. Something’s gotta give. I don’t want that.

So I choose family over career. I’m lucky enough to be able to make a living where I can make it work. I mean no disrespect to those aid worker parents who can make it work, other families have a higher threshold for this lifestyle than we do. This is my story, opinion, and situation. I do not mean to say that I’m right and you’re wrong, I’m only sharing this all as a way to help others who could foresee the same choices in their lives. If you like working in the field for months at a time, racking up the hazard pay and post differential, and your family’s functioning and everyone’s fine – wonderful, I’m happy for you.

I’m really hard on myself and maybe this is a grand bargain I make with myself, in the vein of procrastination – because if I don’t try I don’t fail, or “look how well I did considering I was barely able to work on it” – so who the hell knows what I could be doing or if I’m not giving my all or whatever… but I’ve always wanted to put my family first.

I guess I follow that old quote from John Candy’s character in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, “Like your job, Love your wife.” That is working out for me and I’m really happy with the way things are.

We’ll see where  I can go with this blog from here. Look out for stuff about career development and general family life.

…Not Stirred – Second Nepal Earthquake 7.4

In Humanitarian Response, Nepal, Travel on May 12, 2015 at 2:37 am

5/12/15 3:06pm Kathmandu, Nepal.
Wow, eventful afternoon. There was a 7.4 aftershock, if you can call it that, around 12:30pm. I had just finished lunch. It started slow, then grew until it was just like when I went through the ’89 quake, the ground felt like you’re standing in an unstable boat. We ran outside to the street, where everyone had gathered. This city had just gotten mostly back to normal, now everyone is spooked again and everything will be on hold until people can get their nerves back.

There is a rush of energy right now as everyone is still trying to get home, it’s a sudden unexpected rush-hour.

I was just thinking that I hadn’t blogged much, I Was annoyed with myself for not having that much to say, as I was in a pretty busy work rhythm and my days were moving fast. I was sprinting to the finish, so to speak. Now things feel on hold.

Lonely Fake Handshakes, Sierra Leone Part 3

In Humanitarian Response, Sierra Leone, Travel on April 16, 2015 at 2:17 pm

17 February 2015 3:15 Freetown, Sierra Leone

I got here very early on Sunday. Before I came, I was advised to get out of the airport quickly and on to the water taxi. The Ebola screening wasn’t too bad. I had to fill out a form from the World Health Organization asking if I’d had any of the key symptoms, such as headaches, nausea, bleeding, fever, etc. Everyone has to wash their hands before they would let us in the airport. The visa was easy: I presented my letter and I got my passport stamped. The airport is pretty nice, recently renovated, way better than Juba or Bangui, for example.

The Freetown airport is an old British military base, to drive from the airport to downtown Freetown would be a 3–4 hour drive, I’m told. So the best way to get to the airport is by water taxi. It was a speedboat with about 15-20 spots on it. It took a long time, and it wasn’t a particularly picturesque ride since it was still before dawn with almost no moonlight. The only lights were the distant coastal lights of Freetown and the random boats in the bay. The distance was huge. In my NGO’s office, we’re up on a hill and I can see that the bay is comparable to Monterey Bay in size. So it would be like landing in Santa Cruz and taking a ferry to Monterey (which would be awesome, by the way, someone should start that service, I’d totally take it).

Everywhere I go, I have to wash my hands. Before I entered the office here, I got my temperature taken. It’s in Celsius, so I have to be 37º or below to not raise the alarm. They keep reading me at about 35º. Maybe I’m cold-blooded, or all their thermometers are under-calibrated to reduce the risk of quarantines. I’m not shaking anyone’s hands, people have varying mechanisms to display that they would shake. The Country Rep for my NGO had the best, where he just touched his heart and nodded in my direction. I’ll do that one, I think. I’m here to hire a lot of people. So far we’re setting up interviews. I expect I’ll be doing that handshake substitute a lot.

21 February 2015, 12:30pm

Freetown, Sierra Leone, from a colleague’s house

I left my hotel on Thursday, a colleague generously is letting me crash at his place. It’ll save my NGO some cash and I think we both like the company. It’s bittersweet for a lot of international staff here. Until the Ebola pandemic crisis, this was an accompanied post, that is, most international staff were here with their families.  I can see why my colleague offered for me to stay with him: he had lived here with his family for 3 years, and they only left last June for home leave, but never came back, staying with his family in New England. So here he is, in his family’s house, with the vestiges of a family life but a very empty nest – a lonely spot. A few of my other colleagues have the same situation. And not just the loneliness and empty houses. This used to be a place where you could hang out at the beach, go on day trips, sail. Now movement is restricted and most businesses close early to limit people from circulating around too much.

Of course, the loneliness and shift in lifestyle pales in comparison to the tragedy and social scars that Ebola is leaving behind. A devastatingly high number of health professionals were killed by Ebola, because of their incomplete understanding of how to prevent getting infected during the early stages of this crisis. Many Sierra Leoneans have been shunning survivors and children orphaned by Ebola, either believing them to be bad luck, through an over-abundance of caution, or fear.

Like I was told before I came, Sierra Leoneans practice a level of “social distancing”- no one shakes hands. There have been a few times where I’ve seen expatriates forget for a moment and embrace each other the way you’d greet any good friend you haven’t seen for a while. I met dozens of my NGO’s staff and have now interviewed 22 candidates for several jobs I am here to recruit for, and I’ve not shaken one hand. Some people hold their fists to their heart/chest and do a slight bow at me. I’ve been telling everyone that I owe them a handshake, that gets a smile.

Aid Worker Travel, Sierra Leone Part 2

In Sierra Leone, Travel on April 16, 2015 at 2:00 pm

2/14/15 Casablanca, Morocco, Mohammed V Airport terminal 2, 10pm

I’m on my way to a place where I can’t imagine anyone going just for the hell of it. I’ve spent a good deal of time in this airport now. On this trip I noticed that they completed the bathrooms they had been renovating the last time I was here. I also discovered a free, open wifi hotspot. Before, my iphone would just hang trying to connect to the only open network.

What a mix you have here! This is a major hub of flights for West and Central Africa, in particular. Every time I’ve come through there has been a francophone soccer team passing through. All these young African guys traveling together, always looks like fun. Who knows, maybe one of them will end up making it big. There are a bunch of regular Africans trying to get between their countries – most of the francophone countries. If you want to get between them, going through Morocco is one of the nicer ways. It’s still better than having to go all the way through Europe. A lot of these guys took advantage of the free transit hotel. When my wife and I were in Peace Corps in Niger, that free night in a hotel was a nice perk.

There are the bargain travelers passing through. Since you can get from New York to here to a few places, there are a lot of Europeans and especially middle-easterners. They are often loaded down with huge numbers of bags, even carry-ons. Many of them wrap their bags in cellophane, which I think the American TSA people cut off if you’re going there. A few people waiting to go to Gabon had set up a speaker and were having an impromptu dance party with their local Ndombolo music, which was tempting to join. I don’t, though, perhaps because I’m warming up my “social distance” practice for Sierra Leone, or I’m shy.

My last few trips, you can tell when you see an American or whoever on one of their very first international trips. They have trouble with customs, always triple reading signs, walking slowly… There are a handful of people traveling to Morocco for tourism, which looks like something I’ll have to do some day. On a trip I took last Fall when I went through Paris, there was a giant group of church-goers, all wearing identical t-shirts, with a lot of high-schooolers… almost all on their first international trip, to rehab a church in suburban Paris. Gotta start somewhere I guess. I go back and forth between wanting to blend in and not worrying about it… that’s morphed into a more general those of “don’t be an ostentatious idiot, use your street-smarts, and be super nice to everyone.”

And of course there are the aid workers and backpackers. Sometimes it can be hard to tell them apart, but the aid workers usually look a little more professional, but not like businessmen, and they occasionally wear all-matching shirts or jackets, like the “China Health” team on this flight in purple windbreakers. All the aid workers I know have got travel pretty well figured out – a month-plus TDY packing job can all be done in a carry-on bag, assuming HQ didn’t ask you to transport a bunch of shwag along.

The Moroccans I’ve observed in this airport seem to be a relatively jovial bunch. A bunch of duty free employees (mostly women) are cracking themselves up very loudly a few feet away. There are a good handful of families around, and there were several Moroccan families on my flight from JFK to here. Some very cute kids. Reminded me of when I went to Turkey, with the dads helping more than my stereotypes had led me to expect.

It’s the cold time of year in Morocco, so many of the local men are wearing this awesome Jedi-looking robe with a pointed hood. I have something kind of similar from Niger but it’s not as nice as what they have here: theirs almost looks professional…very cozy looking. Otherwise they mostly look smart in their dark wintery-clothes – overcoats, scarves – european but with the occasional women’s headscarf. Women here seem westernized for the most part, but that’s just what I’m seeing in transit.

I already got my kids the random local cheap souvenirs and T-shirts last time I was here, so I can’t really spend the time shopping or browsing. Duty free shops trip me out, it’s all perfume, chocolate, alcohol, and cigarettes. You can only get water downstairs in the smoky food court or at the end of the terminal at the cafe… looks like they’re building something new in the middle of the terminal, like a more european style salad/buffet place. All I need is good espresso and water, maybe a sandwich.

The local muzak here in this airport is a too-short loop of remakes of music from the Eagles, the Godfather soundtrack, and Simon and Garfunkel, among others… I’ve now heard it all the way through dozens of times.

I try to walk, this is basically a long narrow terminal, you can go by the gates and behind the shops in a back hallway. I should check my iphone later and see if it logs my steps here. Several more hours and I’ll be in Ebolaland.

Peacekeeping and Blow drying, Leaving CAR

In CAR, Sustainable Development, Travel on November 23, 2014 at 12:46 pm

Coming home

November 22, 2014
Aboard Royal Air Maroc flight to Casablanca

Bangui bid me adieu with a thunderstorm. Grey skies, lightning not too far away. Local people trying to start their day, dealing with their normal hassles but with the addition of mud and rain.

There was a huge congregation of trucks near the halfway point near where the UN base is – it was the convoy for the Cameroon border. The routes in all directions are full of bandits and militias, so all NGOs and commercial trucks have been advised to follow various UN convoys on set days per week. The convoys basically clear the way, providing the security and scouting. A helicopter actually follows the convoys looking out for the worst.

According to a report from a few days ago, MINUSCA, the peacekeeping force here, assumed control of the Bangui airport. They’re the soldiers checking your vehicle on the way in, and they provide the security around the airport. In fact, I saw the peacekeeper soldiers deployed to clear the runway of locals so our plane could land. The airport appeared to allow regular people to cross and walk along the runway to pass through to the other side. I noticed they used the UN convoy escort helicopter to dry off a puddle that had built up on the main runway, on its way out.

There were a bunch of UN helicopters at the airport. It was basically a humanitarian airport that lets commercial flights move through. The UN had their several helicopters and UNHAS (United Nations Humanitarian Air Service, usually managed by WFP) has a few planes. MSF and ICRC had their own planes. Usually there are others but I wasn’t looking too hard. There is a camp next to and spilling into the airport for displaced people who were fleeing the Seleka. The Seleka are cordoned off in a part of town that most people on their way to the airport need to pass through, so any time something would flare up it stresses you out, wondering how you could get out if things got really dicey. But, I was confident that the omnipresent peacekeepers would be able to put a lid on anything these guys could throw at them. Indeed most violence is internecine now, the Seleka are divided, and the Antibalaka,who oppose them, take their opportunities to hit them when they can. Any time foreigners are hassled it’s pure criminality.

Getting through that airport was not awful, as usual I go into my traveler zen mode, where nothing can make me mad and I will myself to have absolute faith that I am not the only one being hassled. As long as I get to the airport on time I know I should be ok. The Bangui airport isn’t as bad as Juba or Khartoum, it’s just super small, although it wasn’t as jammed and dysfunctional as Juba. They seemed to move people through reasonably well. They checked my bag no less than 4 times, before I checked in, after I checked in, security scan, and then one final time. The last spot was where they took my spray deodorant and my nail clippers, both of which have been in my carry-on bag around the world with me a few times without hassle. Oh well.

They had a decent lounge upstairs where you could get an egg sandwich and Nescafé. That’s the most expensive Nescafé I’ve ever had, it was about $2 (1000 cfa), the egg sandwich was $4. I can afford it but they know they’re getting a premium from foreigners.

In the end I don’t care too much, this country has had a truly rough time of it. The people are weary, the local people on my flight seem to have this sense of solidarity having gone through some difficult experiences together. Maybe this is how New Yorkers were around 9/11.

Long flights home but I’ll be happy to be back. I had a much better trip than my last one for work, and much better than my last time in Africa. It was good to put Juba behind me. I was happy to speak a lot of French, I was able to get some stuff done and I hopefully was able to make some new friends. So I can’t complain. I’m lucky to have a job like this.

As always, I remain inspired by my colleagues. The heroes are the Central Africans trying to help rebuild their country. All we can do is help them help themselves.

Finding My Pants and Some Deep Thoughts – CAR, Part 4

In CAR, Environment, Governance, International Development, Travel on November 18, 2014 at 1:41 pm

11/15/14
9:20am Bangui
At the moment, I’m most concerned with my pants. They’re the only pair I came with and they’re drying in the sun right now. It seems to rain pretty frequently here and it’s pretty humid, so I need to keep an eye out for rain. I washed them last night for the first time since I got here, I figured it was only fair.

I’m wearing a pair of swim trunks that a colleague’s husband generously loaned me, I’ve been wearing them without underwear when I sleep, while my lone pair of underwear dries overnight, along with my only pair of socks. I’m never checking a bag again when I come to these parts, or when I fly Royal Air Maroc.

My bag may or may have not come on today’s RAM flight that arrived about 90 minutes ago. I tried calling a bunch of times but to no avail. I’ll check in on it in another half hour I guess.

Yesterday was a busy work day, I gave my first presentation in French yesterday, well at least my first since grad school 8 years ago. My first professional presentation… not saying much. But it made the day exciting and it went by fast. I leave a week from today! So there’s that.

Even though there’s some insecurity here, it’s still nice to be with Africans again. I still like the pan-African vibe I get here with more enlightened people, which is to say most people. While there is kind of perfunctory pride in their countries, there is still more feeling of African-ness than being “Central African” or “Nigerien” or whatever. I think people probably feel more kinship with their ethnic group or family clan than they do in their colonially drawn up country.

7:30pm
As it happens, my bag arrived! After I stopped writing and started to arrange my day… I got a call from the airport, and my bag had indeed arrived!

I went to the airport, it took a while because, as my driver told me, we have to pass through an area of town where a lot of displaced people live. What I had thought was a bustling market is actually an overcrowded ghetto with stuff to buy in it, and people are living there because they’re afraid of getting killed in the other neighborhoods of town where they used to live. My driver told me this, he’s one of them. In this neighborhood, it’s mostly non-Muslims fleeing from Muslim-associated violent militias (the Seleka basically). There are other similar areas scared of non-Muslim militias (the anti-Balaka). He also told me about how the Chadians and other various military mercenaries were causing a lot of the unrest these last few years. What an insane mess – so many moving parts.

So with that sobering conversation tempering my enthusiasm, I was happy to get my bag. At some point in the journey they’d wrapped it in cellophane, which I guess was well-intentioned. Everything was there, nothing was stolen. I’ve got my clean pants on and fresh skivvies! It should be a good second week to my trip.

I spent some time just sitting today, for the first time in a while. Got tired of looking at my phone or watching BBC. It’s Saturday and the office is closed, and after a while the internet makes me crazy, a lot of what would feel productive for me involves a lot of internet access to a cloud site.

In any case, I sat on the front porch of my guest house. Across the street is this really pretty and lush hill with a “Bangui” sign up on it. I’m told it used to say “La Coquette” underneath but it’s overgrown. The hill is full of a diverse range of trees and undergrowth, and the guardians told me that there are normally monkeys up there, that come down and steal stuff. I was just kind of reflecting and feeling a weird sense of positivity. Mostly about how amazing the world is – think of how many cool birds there are up there, you can hear them. Think of how beautiful it is here – the river is flowing year round, there’s tons of water. You can grow anything here. There are a ton of natural resources. How easy it would be to be prosperous here if they could only get their shit together. It’s both beautiful and extremely infuriating at the same time. Mankind is the root of all evil.

Anyway, those are my deep thoughts for the day.

Holiday in Juba, Part 1 – before the troubles

In International Development, South Sudan, Travel on December 20, 2013 at 3:42 pm

I just returned from an eventful trip in South Sudan. Below is what I wrote before the so-called “attempted coup”. The next post will be my experience during that time.

12-6-13 MABAN

I flew up to Maban, Upper Nile State, South Sudan yesterday. My overall state of mind is weary, as I was informed on Wednesday night after I got to Juba, that on the Tuesday just before, another NGO’s car got shot at in the same quarter of town where I’m staying and where our office is. Apparently the South Sudanese police/security haven’t been paid for a couple of months, and it’s the Christmas holidays, so they might as well intimidate and steal. I will likely leave South Sudan before my original leaving date.

In any case, I’m finally up in Maban, where all the real work takes place. It reminds me a lot of Dolo Ado in southern Ethiopia – what used to be a medium-large village basically doubled in population within a 5 year period due to refugees form the Blue Nile state in Sudan. What makes this situation unique is that the refugees are living basically right by the town in big organized new villages. It’s got it’s plusses and minuses. As they’re refugees, they have no property rights or work permits to have normal livelihoods here. But they are not locked up in camps, they are free to circulate and come into the markets, and the host community can easily reach out to them to do any kind of commerce.

However, the refugees are getting all the services, while the host community is left with less aid. The local government administrator told me as much yesterday.

As I write this, the sun’s rising and Maban is waking up. Sounds like anywhere else I’ve been in Africa. People chatting, footsteps outside the compound wall. Billions of chickens, the roosters have been crowing since around 4-something. The RI compound here is actually pretty nice, I was pleasantly surprised. It had been in pretty bad shape a year ago, but the guest house is now well equipped, I’m in my own room with a private bathroom. The generator got turned off at 10pm; it got hot really quickly. It’s nice and cool outside, I kind of wish I could have slept outside, but it doesn’t seem they do that. I’m currently wondering how I will get my coffee this morning… regretting not buying a bunch of those Starbucks Via packets that are at least better than Nescafe… We fly back to Juba today around 11am. It’s about a 90 minute flight. Then over the weekend I’m expecting to work with my CD on various financial and administrative issues.

Another Field Trip

In International Development, Sudan, Travel on July 6, 2013 at 11:41 am

I’ve been on another trip for just about 2 weeks now, I have another week to go as I write this.

Before I get really going… I really vacillate on how to blog and what to blog about, since I know a lot of my friends and family want to know what it’s like when I’m out here.  I also feel conscious of my place in my profession, and that I want to write credible blog posts.  So, I’m always torn between providing an account of what I’m experiencing, while also recognizing that to a lot of grizzled expat aid workers and people with long time regional experience, I may sound like a total noob.  So, recognizing that this is my very first time in Sudan and South Sudan, and that I came to work with my Khartoum and Juba staff respectively, and that I didn’t actually go to where the REAL work takes place (North Darfur and Maban/Upper Nile state respectively)… There’s my disclaimer.  Hopefully I’ve layered on enough humility and you’ve read enough about me on this blog to know where I’m coming from.

On to Khartoum

Khartoum was kind of a depressing place.  I just get the impression that Khartoumers are anxious.  After reading about Khartoum a lot, I was expecting a shinier, nicer city.  It’s more or less as bombed out and neglected looking as any city I’ve visited in West Africa.  Yes, there are some very nice restaurants and a halfway decent attempt at a real shopping mall.  There are a couple of pretty nice buildings along the Nile.  But in general, the neglect was kind of shocking.

On Neglect… In Khartoum you’ve got pretty grand colonial administration buildings built by the British in downtown Khartoum.  Yes, the British were pretty much colonial bastards in Sudan that divided and ruled and did some terrible things.  Maybe you don’t want to honor their legacy, maybe you want to assert yourself as an independent place.  But you do have to run your country, and you presumably want to have a nice, functional capital city where you can take care of business and serve your people.  The British built pretty nice buildings to run the country and get stuff done, and they’re crumbling and condemned-looking right in the middle of downtown Khartoum.  On Friday evening when everyone’s home hanging out, we went out to dinner, and the city looked abandoned and post apocalyptic, as if everyone died decades ago and this is the decayed state of a city that shined in the 1960’s.

The service economy, at least in terms of the places I went (expat-friendly restaurants and the mall) was employing mostly southeast Asians, which was strange.  I’d go to a restaurant and be waited on by a Filipino or Indonesian woman.  I wasn’t there long enough to start asking about this, I wonder why the businessmen running the place aren’t trusting Sudanese people to bring me coffee?

There was no alcohol.  At all.  Anywhere.  I heard you can get some someplace where Sudanese people are not allowed.  But that would be a serious adjustment for a westerner living there.  You can’t go out for a beer.  The malt-beverage advertisements lining the boulevards are misleading…

There were some nice things though.  The Sudanese I met in Khartoum are very hospitable.  All along the Nile, during the afternoon I noticed people setting up plastic chairs loosely based around people who will be selling tea and other treats, and by dusk people were filling up the chairs, hanging out under the stars by the Nile, chatting the night away, while their kids played nearby.  It was quite idyllic actually.  Definitely something I would love to do next time I pass through.

As for the work – I don’t want to get anyone in trouble.  Suffice it to say that the Sudanese government has an enormous role in the reason and methods NGO’s are operating in Sudan, especially Darfur.  Darfur remains an unstable and dangerous place.  (It’s been reported the last 48 hours that some local-national (i.e., Sudanese) NGO workers were caught in the crossfire and one killed in a firefight near a refugee camp in Nyala.)  This instability causes the displacement that NGO’s are there to salve, and the NGO’s ironically defer to the government to generously allow them to work in Darfur.  I want to say more but I want to be able to come back and maybe someone is reading this. So, to the extent that NGO’s will be allowed to work in Darfur, I envision steady work there for some time.

My next stop after Khartoum is Juba, South Sudan, but I have to get through the airport in Khartoum first.

Getting out of Khartoum

In Kenya, South Sudan, Sudan, Travel on July 6, 2013 at 6:09 am

I’m on a trip to Sudan, South Sudan, and Kenya.  All Capital cities only, 3 weeks.  This is something I got down about the Khartoum airport.  Had to vent on it.

The Khartoum airport…

When I travel, I’ve learned to go to a zen place when the usual travel annoyances come at me – long lines, slow or incompetent gate or security people – you just have to be friendly and on time, and know that you’ll get there if you are trying to follow the local methods of getting the hell out of town. So I was working very hard to get into this zen place in the middle of the sleepless travel night I was having my last night in Khartoum.

The Khartoum airport was pre-tty bad.  When I was there, in a kind of delirious under-rested state, I wrote… “This is a very weird airport.  You queue up at the front gate and only can even enter the airport when your flight is ready to start letting people check in.  It’s chaotic as everyone is pushing and jostling with their giant, overloaded luggage carts.  In the airport itself, they won’t tell you which gate the flight will be.  I went through security and made it to the gate, but had to go back out when it became clear they hadn’t even designated a gate for my flight.  I’m at least checked in all the way to Juba. ”

It got worse after that.  My flight was scheduled for 3:50am departure (for Nairobi and connecting to Juba).  Boarding was supposed to be at 3:05am,  so at about 3am the line for security was long, so I got in assuming I’d be ready at the gate and on time.  It was a long line, I noticed after a while that they maintained two lines, one for women and one for men.  I was pretty much the only westerner around, maybe 5-7 other euro looking people came through the evening I was there.  A whole soccer team from Kenya was there, and for all of them it was likely one of their first international flights.

I get to the front of the security line and the guy checks my boarding pass… “eez no time yet,” he says. OK, so I stand just back with other people who seem to all be waiting to go to Kenya. I stand there with my leaden American treasure chest Timbuk2 bag, slung, with a shitload of valuable stuff in it that I don’t like to be too far away from me, over my shoulder, watching things.  I notice more of the annoying chauvinist bullshit, moving women to the other line which has to be re-staffed and restarted to get the women through security so they don’t sully the man line, which starts to get to me after a while.  My mind wanders to this issue for a while and I struggled to control my outward reactions (facial expressions, mumbled castigations, etc.)  At least it was distracting me slightly from the anxiety of missing my flight.

3:30 goes by, 3:45, 3:50, what the hell is going on?  I finally pop my head into the ultra exclusive first class lounge (which is about as nice as a 1960’s Reno casino buffet) and ask if the guy knows anything about the Kenya flight, he says it’s delayed 30 minutes.  No one has announced this – there’s no screen, no announcement (in English anyway) and no way of knowing.

I wasn’t concerned with getting on my flight, I was concerned with connecting to Juba; I had a tight connection.  So at this point my blood pressure was getting up there. Finally at about 4:30 we get through security, and eventually on the plane, where the soccer team subverts all plane boarding convention and hoards into the bus and the aisles of the plane.  I get my seat and at least, happily, the middle seat is free and I can spread a little.  I bust out the noise cancellation and chill groove music I need to buy more of, and tried to rest.  In the end, I made it to Nairobi about 2 hours late, and got on a flight 3 hours later to Juba, there are thankfully three flights a day.  It all worked out, even the checked bag was fine.

So that was my Khartoum Airport experience…

Daddy Aid Worker Part 2

In Career Development, Home Life, International Development, Travel on September 18, 2012 at 3:56 pm

Daddy Aid Worker Part 1 was published on DevEx.

The HQ-based view:

Traveling when you’ve got a young family at home is a blessing and a curse. My younger daughter gets especially indignant and dramatic from the moment I tell her I have to go on a trip. Her goodbyes are the hardest to take, but it also makes our reunions more meaningful. It’s flattering and painful. My older daughter focuses on the cross-cultural and geographical aspects of my trip: Where on the globe will I be? What do they eat there? What will I do there? I hope when they’re older they’ll appreciate what I was doing – that my trips ideally resulted in better projects that improve livelihoods in the communities IRD works in. In the end, I fear that any pride in the work their dad was doing will be tempered by the disappointment from me missing any key childhood events, and I’ve already missed a couple, unfortunately.

I’m a program officer with International Relief & Development (IRD). I’m married with three young children – two daughters 8 and 6, and a 16-month-old son. In the last two years I’ve been to Chad, Ethiopia, Kenya, and three times to Niger, almost all three-week trips – an average of 25 percent travel. In most of my trips, I was able to stay in touch via Skype through hotel or office Wi-Fi. There were a brief few days when I was out of touch along the Ethiopia-Somalia border, but that was more because I was too cheap to buy a Somali SIM. Earlier on that same trip, I experienced the DC earthquake while on a video-call with my wife.

I actually do love travel. For all the guilt I feel and any pain I’m causing my family, I feel equal excitement for an upcoming trip, especially if I haven’t visited before. I love visiting a country for the first time, getting stamped through customs and seeing everything for the first time, learning about the local culture, picking up a few words, trying new foods – not to mention the professional challenges of accomplishing work goals in difficult environments. For me, though, almost all of these pluses start to lose their appeal after about 18 days. It becomes harder to focus on work, the calls home start becoming harder to end, the days start feeling longer, and I start looking forward to the plane ride home. Everyone wants their old life back.

On the home front, my incredibly supportive wife teaches one evening a week. She needs a babysitter for that, which costs money. Being gone makes my wife’s life much more physically demanding; it’s like doubling a parent’s workweek, all the home hours where I’m not around to be helpful, not to mention weekends. She has significant logistical challenges covering whatever childcare or chores I would normally cover. Not to mention sacrificing a normal exercise routine.

If I could give advice to those in a similar position, I would say first – know what your and your family’s capacity is to accommodate your travel. Once you’re all generally okay with that, you’ll need to be open with your employer. The key is to be clear about what you’re able to do and not do. That is, how long can a trip be before it becomes a burden on everyone? If you take a job that expects 25 percent travel, that’s 13 weeks of travel a year. For me that has ended up being a burden. Ironically, I’ve been strict – I try to limit my travel to three weeks or less, if possible. I target any trip as two weeks, and if it needs to be longer I feel like I need justification. This may hurt my chances of advancing unless I change the type of position I’m in or until my kids are older.

The wider issue is the culture of international development. At my headquarters, we support our 35 field offices, and when we’re in the field we have to answer for HQ. We are pulled to the field for critical management situations or to support emergency relief projects. Some things won’t get accomplished the way they need to unless a headquarters person does it, and there are times when I’m traveling that headquarters adds one thing after another to my scope of work. The people who are fine being away for months at a time really raise the stakes for those who might not want to maintain that pace. Others would do whatever it takes, but as soon as they have kids, they start pulling back a little, which can be a difficult adjustment for the die-hard types who used to be able to fly off at the drop of a hat.

Again, it all comes down to what you and your family decide they can handle, not just financially, but emotionally. We talk about “having it all,” but at this point I am content with having most and putting certain personal and professional goals on hold until my family and I can handle it, adjusting my career in the process. My mantra is that your kids are young once. Don’t miss it.