Archive for the 'On the road' Category


The graduation event is over and another event is taking place today. I signed up for both, not knowing exactly what to expect, a kind of a trust fall.

Some 225 of us clustered around the closed doors of the conference facility next to Madison Square Gardens and above Penn station. The level of noise generated by at least 100 conversations was deafening. The mood was upbeat, people were excited. I counted few men among the women, maybe a ratio of one man for every 10 women, and then a predominance of white women in the 30 to 50 year range. I asked one man what that felt like. “We are in the minority now!” He did not tell me what that felt like.

People had come from Korea, Turkey, Argentina, Australia and other far afield places. As usual, I saw no Africans. In the opening session we were asked to think about our aspirations for the day and people were invited to share (of course). I thought it would be good to get the microphone and say I hope to connect with people who were involved in development so that kindred spirits could find me. I wore my Burkina dress to help them. I also wanted to connect with a member of my French peer group, the only one there and folks from Boston.  It worked. But this is also why I know there were no Africans in the group.

Everyone there had completed the 7 months of webinar training and, presumably, the accompanying homework, though we have till August to complete it. I am among the non-completes. Some of us will continue our training to be certified (‘cert’) for short.

We participated in a fabulous simulation that I would like to run sometime. At each table we were considered a whole brain, with pairs of us representing various parts of the brain. And so I was, with a woman named JoAnn, the primitive brain, sitting next to the limbic brain pair, across the heart brain pair, with the neo-cortex and prefrontal cortex pairs at the other end of the table.  We then had to agree on a trigger event (being thrown under the bus) and each act out our reaction to the trigger. It was a rich exercise that helped me understand better how reactions to triggers happen. It was also a lot of fun.

As homework we were given a paperclip and given as assignment ‘to trade up’ with random New Yorkers, using our conversational skills in the process. My first reaction was one of anxiety and part of me saying ‘no, I am not going to do this.’ The assignment triggered the same intra-brain conversation that we had just acted out.

I was able to trade up my paperclip for a pen and then my pen for a bike light. I did both in one full sweep in the subway. After that I had learned that my requests only worked with people who carried bags full of stuff. I tried one more time with a gaggle of young women – they were game and searched through their tiny handbags (lens fluid?) but they had no backpacks with stuff and apologized they couldn’t help me.

The first trade was with a young couple who were interested in the program; the second uptrade was with a man sitting on my other side with earbuds in his ears. I interrupted him but he participated with a grin and searched in his bag for what to give me. That was the bike light.uptrade

The experience of such cold-calling was quite similar to trying to get stores to donate stuff for a school auction years ago and last fall when we went door to door in southern New Hampshire to convince people to vote the democratic ticket. At first I dreaded it and then I really got into it. same this time.

Car hotels and moules-frites

We are in New York now.  I unpacked my small carry-on yesterday and repacked for New York where are am joining a few hundred (?) others who have completed the Coaching training that I started in January. We are cohort two of a brand new program that has enlarged my view on things exponentially.

I have started to insert what I am learning in my practice, with the first successful (I believe) attempt this week in Cote d’Ivoire.  It is all very exciting.

It took us nearly 7 hours to drive from Manchester to New York. There was a lot of what I used to call ‘first gear’ stretches, but now we just call it stop-and-go. Luckily we had good books, good company (the two of us) and good music so the ride wasn’t that bad.

After we parked our car at its hotel for a fee that would get you a bed and a shower in other places, we walked to our hotel. It is right next to the Sex Museum. It looks more like an Apple store (lots of glass and white, attractively displayed merchandise. I think it is a shop rather than a museum. Between the shop and our hotel is a movie theater for adults only; now playing: animal sex. But the museum/store is cooler and hipper than the seedy establishments one would expect to be focused on sex. Our hotel does not rent rooms by the hour. It is clean and quite elegant.

We ate across the street in a Belgian restaurant that looked just like the Belgian restaurant in Dubai which looked just like the real thing with heavy red velour curtains hanging on large brass rings to keep the cold weather (respectively  90 and 110 degrees) out. There were wise sayings painted on the walls in French (and maybe Flemish), the kind of hanging lamps that are common in high ceilinged establishments in Belgium and Holland, balloons in the colors of the Belgian flag and specials because today is Belgium’s national holiday (or so they said).

I had steak tartare, Axel had moules-frites. He had a hard time choosing from the extensive beer menu. The menu had pairings suggested by the sommelier but we learned that a beer connoisseur is not a sommelier but a cicerone from our friend Larry’s son in law who practices this profession on the other coast.


I spent three days with malaria experts from Africa and one team from Nepal, our own MSH advisors who brought along their government counterparts.  It was truly a united nations. United about the goal of eradicating malaria and about 20 different nations represented. In addition there were a few representatives from our competitors who, in this case, are also our collaborators. They will be taking the baton when our project that has provided the funding so far, ends in September. This is to make sure the transition doesn’t hurt the women and children who need to be treated or protected from malaria. It is an act of synergy and collaboration that is not all that frequent (outside partnering on a bid) in an otherwise very competitive field.

For three days we did not talk about malaria, or very little, but rather focused on the human harmony or disharmony that helps or hinders the work that needs to be done. This is of course entirely in line with the original founding philosophy of MSH, which was all about the unnecessary suffering and death as a result of poor management and leadership (and governance which was added later).

Our doctor experts, and their counterparts, are both causing and suffering the consequences of not understanding human dynamics. They know the theory and focus all of their attention on what others are doing wrong. It is a familiar refrain: the politicians, the senior leaders, the donors, the villagers, the healthcare providers…one or the other or all are doing things entirely wrong and so they need to be put on the right track. There is a lot of preaching and wagging fingers and doing it harder and louder when the hoped for result stay out.

For three days, in this coaching and communication workshop, I exposed them to everything I have learned over the past 7 months about the neuroscience of getting people to work better together, share, expand, appreciate, create a climate of trust, develop, celebrate and include. The term is to ‘up regulate’ those and down regulate the criticizing, the excluding, the judging, the withholding, limiting and dictating.

Although most of the people are doctors, they know little about the brain (little of the little we know about the brain), and so for a change I was the expert. Since the workshop was in English and French, with simultaneous translation, I switched between French and English in order to give one group and then other a break from the very uncomfortable headsets. On the third day I noticed some confused expressions on the faces of the French speakers. We had talked a lot about the limbic system and the amygdala. As I discovered, the word amygdala comes from the Greek word for almond, as the amygdala are almond shaped. But there is another part of the body that is also almond shaped, the tonsils which, in Dutch, German and French uses the same Greek derivative: amandelen, Mandeln and yes, indeed, amygdales.  And so, all the time I had been talking about the amygdala, they were wondering about tonsils. In my coaching course I have learned that ‘words means worlds.’ So very true. I was glad we had cleared that confusion up before everyone went home.


Everything aeronautical went like clockwork from the moment I left the hotel in Lome until Axel picked me up 25 hours later at Reagan National Airport. I got to travel the last hour in style with the upgrade I had coveted all along, just for the JFK-DCA leg. It got me a drink while the people in the back did not because we were given a very low altitude to travel due to inclement weather in the region. The upside of this, according to the captain, was that we didn’t have to wait for hours on the JFK tarmac and that we got a good view at the scenery below; the downside that it was very bumpy and (for those traveling in economy) that the flight attendants were asked to stay put.

I was in time to join our friend Larry for a celebration of his 70th birthday party. I have never traveled that far to a party. I was able to enjoy the festivities till the very end when I pulled on Axel’s sleeve and told him I couldn’t keep my eyes open.

I had tried to nap in our DC hotel room where Axel was already well ensconced. But there were too many impressions, as there always are, from the 25 hour trip rummaging around in my brain; a combinations of movies (Avatar, CSI), reading (Sapiens), and (electronic) puzzle pieces. I just couldn’t silence my brain’s attempts to make sense of all these data bits that were pulsing through my head to allow me to fall asleep; but I did rest.

Rest (and digest) is one of the many things Jon Kabat-Zinn writes about in his delightful little book ‘Wherever you go, there you are.’ The reading is a logical extension of our reading of Brene Brown’s ‘Daring Greatly,’ which has led to many wonderful conversations during the many hours we spent together (first in Holland and then in the car while Tessa was in the hospital). I suppose Axel’s reaching 70 and me 65 has sharpened our focus on what we want to be rather than do.

Reading Kabat Zinn, Brown, Tessa’s illness and my coaching course with its intense exposure to what happens in our brains led me to start a daily meditation practice again. Some years ago I used to meditate 20 minutes before going to work but when it became another thing on my to do list and required me to get up  even earlier I dropped the habit as the the ‘have to’s’ canceled out the benefits of my meditation practice.

During this trip, and encouraged by Kabat-Zinn I realized I was ready to practice again, especially with my hyper travel schedule and the stressful last few months. I set myself a goal of 8 minutes. Combined with my ankle and hip exercises I am good for at least 10 per day minutes of living in the present. I have set my sights on increasing this here and now time, starting today.

While we are celebrating Tessa’s 32nd birthday from afar (her annual birthday bash at Lobster Cove has probably just ended on this Sunday morning), we are packing up to leave for Chadd’s Fort in Pennsylvania.  Axel has organized a trip to the Brandywine River Museum where, according to the NYT, there is a once in a lifetime exhibit of the works of one (or more?) of the Wyeths. This is how we are making our way slowly back home, and enjoying this mini vacation before my next trip to West Africa in two weeks.

Shifting gears

The Togo trip is nearly over. I am halfway home (in Paris now). I had wanted to buy an upgrade for the night flight from Lome but didn’t think it was worth the 500 euro Air France wanted. Instead I took a sleeping pill and I might as well have been in B-class. You can buy a lot of sleeping pills for 500 euro.

During this past week in Togo we, or rather ICRC, had brought together teams from rehab centers in Senegal, Mali, Niger, Togo and Madagascar. I knew some of them. Over the past three years we had organized these events but now we have passed the baton to ICRC which, in turn, is passing the baton to the management teams of those centers. In the process ICRC is also passing the baton of accompanying the process to its local (as opposed to expat) staff. This is how things should go. From being in charge I am now a hired hand.

We have worked together on this initiative with several Geneva- and field-based staff for the last several years. Now, after two last trainings (last week in Bangkok and this week in Togo), the teams will be coached rather than trained. They have their marching orders and have to show some pretty compelling results, starting in the next few months in terms of baseline data, and then over the next three years to show these data show improvements. No more easy money. Accountability it is!

We divided the coaching of the country teams over the next three years among our MSH colleagues. One will  coach the Cambodia and Myanmar teams, another the Pakistan teams, another the Togo and Madagascar teams and I get to travel to Mali and Niger in the fall (when the Harmattan blows in the Sahel). MSH is contracting with ICRC for my three trips to these countries and have monthly calls.  It won’t be enough to keep me gainfully employed but it will be interesting. I just have to find some other work in the side.

It was nice to have newcomers and old-timers to our management and leadership development program in the room together. The old-timers re-assured the newcomers that change was possible, that they should stop saying that they needed more money to do their work, and that they should start to change themselves rather than focusing on others to change. It was so very satisfying to have other people pass the message. This is experiential learning: experience first, then decide whether you like it or not. Having the old-timers in the room was very helpful.

I hardly left the hotel. One night I joined a small group to eat in a Chinese restaurant half a mile from the hotel.  A drunken motorbike taxi driver tried to recruit us to take a ride on his bike. He was ranting about how wonderful ‘les blancs’ were. We tried to ignore him but he ignored our silent treatment. At the Chinese we were the only guests, something that worried me but the food was good and freshly prepared. One of our ICRC colleagues has lived in China and dug up some Chinese words from his memory.

In front of the hotel is the beach which stretches all along the Bay of Benin for I don’t know how many miles. It is a beautiful wide beach with fine sands, the kind that would be any hotel’s dream in the US. But here it is, at least after dark, the territory of bad guys (‘brigands’). The hotel wouldn’t let us, two white women, walk the quarter mile or so to the water’s edge on our own even before it got dark.  And so a young hotel employee accompanied us and told us much about himself; when we arrived back at the hotel he wanted email addresses. This is all part of the dream of one day being sponsored to everyone’s dream – America. I let my younger colleague deal with this request. I get enough emails as it is from people desperate to leave the place they were born.


It has been two weeks since I last wrote.  It has been a bit of a rollercoaster ride. We finally landed and stepped out of the roller coaster when Tessa, Steve and Axel met with the neurologist. This was the top doc from Dartmouth who she had last seen two weeks earlier in the emergency room. As it turned out we had been given rather confusing, and at times scary, information. The last visit finally brought some clarity, which Tessa has described very well on the Mealtrain website so I will not repeat. Tessa may become a case for students to test their diagnostic skills one day.  She is recovering now, which may take a while. We are grateful that all the scary diseases have been ruled out.

After rushing back from Holland and then staying in a hotel in Manchester (NH) near the hospital, and several trips back and forth to the other Manchester, I finally returned home and to work.  I had just a little over a week before getting on a plane again. First to DC where I stood in for a colleague to moderate/facilitate a panel of disability activists, all formidable women, at a conference organized by Interaction, an umbrella organization representing both international development and humanitarian organizations. The session was about strategies for inclusion (who are we not reaching?), a complex topic. Some 30 people came to the session and engaged in spirited conversations that produced some very actionable ideas.

And then it was off to Africa again. I flew from DC, rather than returning first to Boston; besides it was convenient to return to DC on July 1st to celebrate our friend Larry’s 70th. Axel will drive down with a stop in NYC, and we will drive back up together on Tessa’s birthday (July 2).

I am glad I don’t usually fly out of DC (Dulles). The summer travel chaos reminded me what a great airport we have in Boston. The plane was so full that I couldn’t even bring my carry on. When I picked my seat the evening before I had one free seat beside me. But that was now taken by a 4 year old and his 6 year old brother. Dad wisely traded places with another family that wanted to sit together, and picked a window seat several rows away from his kids. Mom with daughter sat in the row in back of us.

All this meant that I had to take on dad’s job (I didn’t want to trade for a window seat), such as how the screens worked, and help with dinner. It also meant I had to worry constantly about sticky drinks being tipped over onto me.  Luckily this didn’t happen. However, the two boys, and their sister discovered a cart in the galley with unlimited coca cola. All through the 7 hours flight, while I was trying to sleep, they crawled over and under me, plastic cups with coca cola in their hands, and exclamations during movies that were not modulated by hearing their own voice. Sometimes all three kids sat next to me, and sometimes only one, squeezing back and forth between my knees and the chair in front of me. I should have bought the 145 Euro upgrade to the next class up which I had refused because I would have been in a middle seat.

And now I am in Paris, waiting to board the flight to Togo where I am joining colleagues from ICRC to get more rehab center staff ready to transform their centers.

The good and the bad

On Saturday June 3 we came to a lovely little castle (Kasteel Amerongen) which once housed the Kaiser who sat out his final years in Holland – a controversial move from the Dutch government but what can you do when the royal family ties are so deeply intertwined with Germany.

Despite the expectation of rain during our 9 day vacation in Holland, it was a glorious day and we celebrated my sister and brother-in-law’s 50th anniversary. Some 140 people joined us for this festive event, representing various phases of the couple’s life:  family, high school friends, study friends, fellow bureaucrats from Den Haag and Brussels and friends from their brief stay in Washington DC.

We continued to stay at their summer house in the center of Holland and do mostly nothing other than sleep in, eat all the goodies that springtime Holland has to offer and sit outside in the sun and talk.

And then we got the call from Sita that Tessa was in the ICU of Elliott Hospital in Manchester (NH) with what turned out to be Acute Transverse Myelitis.

We shortened our stay in Holland by one day and rushed home to be with her. She is leaving the hospital today for an acute rehab center closer to her home. I am posting updates on her condition at this website and will not repeat them here.

September 2017
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