Archive for the 'On the road' Category

The joy of eating in Japan

Today is my last day of work and our last day in Tokyo . We return tomorrow. There is likely to be more work here later and I am contemplating whether to seriously study Japanese.

While I worked, Axel has been exploring Tokyo, one day with our friend Miho, and the other days by himself. Sofar I have had a day and a half to accompany him on his explorations. It has been mostly raining which has literally dampened the fun a bit.

This has not dampened the food explorations. Every day we have the Japanese breakfast: miso soup, nato (fermented beans), rice with all sorts of interesting add-ons, seaweed, tofu, and more. There is a continental breakfast as well but why bother.

We have had, of course, our sushi, but there is more to Japanese food than sushi and sashimi. Twice we were invited to join with the founder and program manager of the Japanese Women’s Leadership Initiative (JWLI).  On Saturday she took us to a lovely small yakatori (=small brochettes) restaurant named ‘the dirty stinking southerner’ (Nambantei) according to our host. It referred to the smelly Dutch people who entered Japan in the 1600s, the first foreigners to be let in. The walls and menu were decorated with copies of old drawings of these smelly foreigners on their ship (yes, with the Dutch flag I am embarrassed to say) and sitting around a table drinking beer.

Last night (Sunday) we went to a small restaurant where we grilled thin pieces of beef on a small grill in front of us, accompanied by spicy kimshi, salad and a variety of pickled vegetables. The restaurant is located in the neighborhood where our host grew up during and right after WWII. She pointed out where her house had once stood, now replaced by a 4 story building.

Yesterday we got a taste of overpopulation at and around the very busy Shinsuku station, one of four large stations that spew out thousands of people every minute into Tokyo. It has a Times Square feel to it (and there is a Times Square just around the corner). We are glad to be in the quiet Rockefeller house (by invitation only, we are so lucky) with its beautiful gardens, tucked away in the district known for its active and noisy night life.


Next assignment: Japan


August came and went too fast. In the US Labor Day (first Monday in September) signals the official end of summer. The roads fill up again, university cities add tens of thousands of residents as students return. Faro returned to his immersion Chinese school, first grade now, and babbles easily in mandarin according to Sita- none of us understanding him of course.

Sita went and returned from her job at the eventful ASEAN World Economic Forum in Vietnam and barely got to explore Hanoi. She wants to go back there, as we would want to.  It’s an idea for a family vacation.

I completed the lion’s part of my consultancy with an organization in North Carolina, just in time before hurricane Florence moved in. I have started to immerse myself in the preparations for my teaching job in the fall and put the finishing touches on the lectures and workshops in Japan.

We left for Japan on the 12th using up my last Delta global upgrades before they would disappear forever. Even in business class the trip is long. We emerged in a  daze after 19 hours from the moment we got up. After entering and leaving various stations and trains and going up and down stairways and escalators, we found our way to our lovely hotel in the Roppongi area of Tokyo. Our abode here is the Rockefeller-built International House of Japan – a building with a philosophy of cultural and intellectual exchange to get Japan back on its feet after the war. It certainly did!


In the center

After a last swim in our hosts’ swimming pool, we made a visit to a Korean/Asian section of San Diego, had a pho lunch and explored the large Korean supermarket. Then it was time for goodbye and we ‘lyfted’ our way into the center of things yesterday. It was good we were in the suburbs while the big ComicCon (conference) was going on with hundreds of thousands of people who had flown in to enjoy/see and be merchandised all things comic (popular arts according to the banners on the streetlamps). 

The Lyft and Uber people were having a field day even though the electric scooters and bikes  were competing with their business and became a bit of a traffic hazard. Our Lyft drivers have been great – we learned about the Chaldeans from Iraq (“why would I ever wanted to go back there?”), the conference from Dani who seemed to be half Vietnamese half Filipino (we didn’t ask), we dragged up our Lebanese and sang along with a Fairouz song with Mike Mohammed, our Palestinian driver who grew up in Lebanon. Why would one ever want to rent a car (in a city), when all these great characters are there to converse with?

We ambled along the curving paths in the Japanese Friendship garden of Balbao Park, Axel with his cane and me with my sore ankle, we made a sorry pair – elderly some would say, ughh. Befitting this label we went for the early bird dinner at the Fishmarket restaurant right at the harbor where we sampled and compared east coast and west coast oysters. After a coffee and gelato in Little Italy we had a superb foot massage around the corner of our hotel to tend to our sore feet. 

And now I am having a seaweed (picked up at the Korean market), dark chocolate and coffee breakfast in our spacious downtown hotel room while Axel completes his sleep. I am attending a refresher session of the zoom-delivered C-IQ training on how to ‘humanize’ conversations. If I get one of the gigs I am hoping to get in early September, facilitating a meeting with several very highly placed people from different walks of life, I have to know how to do this and so a refresher is in order.

Doors closing and opening

After a sleepless night at the very last row of the plane, I am now in Paris in the K-hall lounge, dizzy with sleep. I was too late to get the complimentary face massage from Clarins – all 20 minute sessions booked for the morning. I probably would have gone to sleep. One has to get in on the first flight in the morning to get a slot it seems. Word has spread about this nice part of the lounge experience.

I am trying to use up my global upgrades that Delta offers to its frequent flyers. All four of them go ‘poof’ at the end of September. I am waitlisted and competing for three open seats in B-class to Boston- calling on the powers in the universe to get one of those.

The same boss who gave me the news of the termination of my position has now resigned herself to take up a post in Geneva. She is leaving a week before me. Strange how things can change on a dime – and probably a good thing we don’t have a crystal ball.

I am drawing on my daughters’ experience with rate setting and contracting – it’s a new world for me and I want to start it right – no regrets later, oh I wished I had…But it is causing some anxiety,

Of the three jobs that I thought I had in my pocket just weeks after I had been notified of my departure from MSH two have been cancelled already. I will not go to Saudi Arabia (hoping for next year) and I will not teach an online OB class this summer for Simmons College (not enough registrations). Only the very brief Japan trip in September is on.  I have been given the go ahead to buy my ticket.

Each time a door closes another one opens. Soon after the cancellation of the Saudi project I was invited to compete for a contract of an organization MSH has partnered with and competed with in the past.  And within a day of learning about the Simmons cancellation a former colleague who now works elsewhere in the global health space has approached me about a gig in Senegal. This is my new reality – welcome says Axel as he’s been there. The question now is, how many days of the year do I actually want to work? And do I want to continue going to hot and dusty places, leaving beautiful Lobster Cove during the best months of the year?

Rallies, rupture and selfies

Political rallies were announced the other day for Friday. I knew this before I heard about them locally because I received several emails warning me. The previous rally had turned bad with several people wounded, and enraged more people, so more rallies are in the making. The emails reminded me to not go to these rallies and take pictures. I wasn’t planning to – but I had one more assignment in my scope of work that required another trip across town to a state agency I was supposed to work with. When I learned this morning that it was not a good idea to travel across town on Friday, especially since more spontaneous demonstrations could develop, and also that all the people in the agency that could make decisions about governance were all at some rally in Mopti, I decided to change my flight home.

My colleague was amazed I could actually arrange this in about 10 minutes – he had discouraged me to even try. But I was motivated – the heat and the food arrangements had started to get to me, and there was nothing else to do. Spending another day in my hotel room sitting in front of my computer was simply not appealing anymore. I had done too much of that already.

My reports written and reviewed, we made one more trip across town to see progress on the manual (and there was, quite significantly, and not ‘de la literature!’). The roundtrip once again took over two hours (heat, filth), while I was munching on ‘beschuit’ and drinking oral rehydration liquids – to replace lost fluids and avoid upsetting my stomach again (unfortunately mangoes were no recommended foods).

I returned to my hotel to pack, get cash (credit card machines never work here), pay my bill, say goodbye on Skype to my US-based boss who is leaving MSH tomorrow and sort out some administrative stuff. The driver picked me up early to go to a communal breaking of the fast (‘la rupture’) at a fancy Bamako hotel – I was invited to partake in the meal before he would take me to the airport. I had some simple communal meal in mind, like we had last week at the zoo/conference center but I was wrong. Everyone was in their best and most colorful outfits, white and light blue for the men and all colors of the rainbow for the women. The setting was an impressive buffet, all manners of dishes and delicacies. Here I was in my travel clothes, but warmly welcomed by colleagues I had never met. We sat around the table waiting for the sign that the fast for the day was over.

There was some comparing of smartphone clocks before a round of kinkeliba tea was served and the dates were passed around.  People had told me that, this far into the month of fasting (it’s over next week) people had gotten used to not eating from 5AM till 7PM and their stomachs had shrunk. And so I expected people to put small portions on their plates. Not so. First they piled their plates high up with rolls, beignets, mini pizzas, pain au chocolat and such. Then they filled up plate after plate with stews, skewers, fried potatoes, couscous, and then there was desert. If this is restrained eating, then I wonder what regular eating is. Actually, I kind of know.

And now I am at the airport, watching two teenage girls preen and posture to continuously improve their selfies. It’s kind of entertaining to watch. They don’t seem to get tired of looking at themselves, try out new poses. Smartphones have democratized style and beauty – anyone with looks can now be a glamour girl, pretend to be on a magazine cover that is her own phone.

Garbage and other unmentionables

On Monday I started the second part of my assignment, working with an impressive Malian NGO that is getting ready to take over the functions of our project, which means instead of us, they will be assisting other less advanced NGOs to get their organizational management and governance in order. For them to do this they have to get their own house in order and this means, among other things, bringing their governance practices up to American standards – they hope to get American tax dollars in due time to help them pay for their assistance to others. The senior leadership team participated in last week workshop and now they are getting their governance manual together – something they realized was lacking.

We had given them a generic outline of what a governance manual needs to contain. They immediately set to work, very systematically – see what they had, someplace, and what they did not. They asked us for advice on these missing pieces and we asked them a bunch of questions, such as, how do people get on or off the board, what requirements are there, who votes and how, etc. It’s a big task that, with the French tendency to write literature whatever they do, required some nudging towards conciseness and simplicity.

The NGO is across town and it took a full hour to get from where we are to where they are; straight through the congested market, narrows streets blocked by 18 wheelers filled with yams or potatoes or onions and the smaller camions, carts and strong lean men that take the wares to other parts of the vast market. And where there is a market there is waste. A huge and horrendous garbage pile sits right at the edge of the market and next to a residential/commercial district. Garbage pickers are pushing their way through the mess to discover treasure – kids barefoot, skinny women and men. I could not look at the scene.  Onwards we went through lots of potholed or unpaved streets lined by various small scale commercial enterprises. The town is filthy beyond filthy – I remember times when it was not, or maybe my memory fails me.  But we certainly produce more filth because there are more people and more cars and no one fixes anything it seems. One wonders about city government – it appears to be entirely absent. One also wonders what urban planners are doing – there must we at least some. But as my colleague says, the only way to get something done or get away with not doing something is to pay someone off. It’s a thriving side business for countless people I suspect.

Back in the office, another hour later, my colleagues sent for a sandwich from a local sandwich shop, a beef shawarma. It tasted delicious and so I didn’t notice right away that something was amiss. But by the time I was dropped off at the hotel I didn’t feel that well, and after that I was up all night trying to get rid of whatever toxins I had ingested. I didn’t sleep a wink and called in sick the next day. There was no way I was going to endure two more hours in traffic and driving by the garbage heap without some form of physical upheaval.  The combination of very high temperatures, food not being consumed during the day because of Ramadan and the regular power outages made for a perfect intestinal storm. I bought oral rehydration salts (a gift from the American people, our project logo on the box, bought by retailers at a subsidized price and selling for 45% over the price advertised on the box. From the American People for the American People. It got me back on my feet.

A Sunday outing

Today my Quebecois friends told me at breakfast he was not feeling well and would not join me, and so I went by myself. I asked the taxi man (we are now considered friends because I pay him well and I negotiate only a little) whether he was willing to accompany me in the park, since I had no idea what the park was like and decided having a male companion might be a wise thing. He reluctantly agreed. At first I thought it was because of the entrance fee and I told him quickly I’d pay for him. Later I realized it wasn’t that (only). He is fasting and it was over 90 degrees and on such days most people just stay quietly in a cool place, like under a tree. Instead I dragged him around the park and up a hill and then to visit the neighboring zoo. I usually don’t like to visit zoos in developing countries because they are too sad, but people told me this zoo was very nice and the animals well cared for. This turned out to be true.

I was kind of excited when we arrived at the chimpanzees, the very few animals that were actually visible. He kept saying how human they looked – they are like us, look at their hand and feet, he kept saying. I told him they were our ancestors and that we looked a lot more like them some 200.000 years ago. He looked at me in disbelief, you mean before Jesus? Yes, long before Jesus I told him.

We also stopped by the lions – it was like one of those ‘Where is Waldo’ pictures – the guard told us there were 9 lions in the very large lion enclosure – we looked and searched and found about 6 of them, the rest hidden in shady places. The enclosure has a fence around it that seemed adequate but my driver got obsessed with people falling over. You’d have to be very dedicated to falling into the enclosure, said the guard, but my driver thought it would be easy; and then, I could see his mind running away, the lions would eat you. I told him that I’d thought the lions looked rather well fed and would probably not eat him, probably just sniff and then walk away, but he was convinced he’d be a goner. Most of the lions in Mali are gone now – killed. My driver told me that this was normal as the people who killed the lion would otherwise have been killed. He was clearly preoccupied with the killing nature of the lions.

Since most animals were asleep and/or out of sight we retraced our steps back down to the park and then to the museum. He declined my invitation into the museum where I hoped it would be cool. It was now the hottest part of the day.

The museum is small and could use some display help but the textile exhibit was nice. The old and new videos of traditional practices and rituals that accompanied the collection of masks, were interesting but I didn’t stay very long as the temperature inside was only slightly lower than outside.

I was beginning to visualize myself sitting at a lovely restaurant terrace looking out over the Niger with a large bottle of cold water and a glass of very cold dry rose. Since that part of the trip had not been negotiated the night before there was a little more haggling before I found myself exactly as imagined at the Brasserie Badala. Looking out over the slowly moving Niger River, seated under an umbrella that sprayed a fine mist of water every minute over the tables, I had the glass of ice cold dry rose, a bottle of water (I drank all 1.5 liter during my meal) and a salade nicoise before heading home. The combination of heat and rose wine called for a nap. And now, even though the day is fading, the temperature is still at 97 degrees, suggesting an afternoon swim.

October 2018
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